Soccer is egalitarian extremism run rampant

Posted: Friday, July 02, 2010

Maurice Edu broke through a mob of world-class Slovenian wrestlers to punch the ball into the net for an American victory. Koman Coulibaly, the referee, saw the muggers but chose to blame the victim instead. No goal! No replay! No explanation!

Imagine a baseball umpire nullifying a tie-breaking home run in a playoff game by vaguely gesturing at the batter's box. How many people would tune in for the next game?

Coulibaly's ruling affected only one game, but it could have a devastating impact on the future of soccer in America. The excitement surrounding the World Cup, and the surprising success of the American team, had advanced soccer in America a few small but significant steps. With one blow of the whistle, however, soccer has taken a big leap backward.

America might make it in the World Cup one day, but can soccer make it in America? Three reasons suggest not.

- First, soccer in America is an educational tool that most students outgrow once they leave school behind. In Europe, soccer unleashes exuberant passions, but in America, soccer teaches you how to run around without running into anyone or leaving anybody behind. Soccer is egalitarian extremism: everyone gets a trophy, and nobody scores enough to justify gloating over anyone else. Baseball takes too much time, football is too intimidating, and basketball is harder than it looks, but soccer is the perfect sport for American parents who want their plugged-in kids to burn off some calories. Best of all, soccer teaches young kids to operate in packs without pushing, shoving and bullying. Even older kids often play the game because their insistent parents hold out hope for a college scholarship.

- Second, most Americans do not see the benefits of going into a battle with your hands tied behind your back. Every sport has rules, but denying your own best attributes before you even begin playing is going a bit too far. The rules of most games permit ordinary activities - like throwing or swinging - to be elevated to unheard heights. Kicking is an ordinary activity, but it is hard to imagine a kick being developed to the same degree of finesse and complexity as a fastball, jump shot or long bomb.

Soccer is unique in creating a game by enforcing what in any other context would be a disability. It is like having a boat race without the oars.

Perhaps this is why soccer players are so quick to fall down and cry for a foul. They have fewer ways of influencing the game than players in other sports.

- ---Third, and most fundamentally, there is the problem with scoring.

I know that the lack of scoring is part of soccer's charm, but it is an odd sport where, the better the game, the lower the score. Watching a game is like going through the line of a gourmet cafeteria but being able to pick out only one item, and even then you don't know until the end of the line whether you will really get to eat it or not. Some people might enjoy the frustration, but most Americans find it hard to enjoy the expenditure of so much energy without much to show for it. A great shot in basketball is cause for showing up the other team; a soccer goal is cause for nearly mystical enthusiasm, as if a miracle has taken place, not the successful conclusion to a well-designed play.

America is the most pluralistic country in the world, and we enjoy new things, but we like to modify foreign products to fit our tastes.

So here is my advice: let the players score more by widening the nets! Basketball added a three-point shot and play clock, and the game took off. Let America change soccer, and soccer will become American.

•Stephen H. Webb is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College and the author of book "The Dome of Eden: The Problem of Creation and Evolution." Readers may write to him at Wabash College, Center Hall 217, Crawfordsville, Ind. 47933.

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