Every four years, large swaths of the world pause to enjoy the World Cup, a tournament of the 32 best national teams in soccer. Like clockwork, American sports writers and fans mark the occasion with loud commentary about how “stupid” they find the sport. Barrels of ink are spilled and vocal cords strained assuring everyone that our “football” is better than soccer and, more American. Project much?
Setting aside whatever Freudian motivations necessitate such screeds, perhaps the question merits consideration. Is our “football” more American? I wish it weren’t true, but, sadly, I’m afraid these writers and fans are probably right.
Professional football in the US is, after all, a government-protected monopoly. A rapidly growing city can’t just field its own team, but must first get approval from the cartel of football team owners. These cartel members can also usually count on taxpayers to foot the bill for building their stadiums. This cartel also ensures that teams can enjoy staying in the league regardless of performance. In the English Premier League (soccer) and most other leagues, the worst performing teams get thrown out of the league every year, until they can earn their place back. Americans of an older generation will remember this concept as a meritocracy.
Professional athletes in this country, since this is America, are also represented by labor unions. Players of certain sports will occasionally go on strike due to wage and benefit concerns. Much of this strife arises because most American sports operate with “salary caps,” limiting how much each team can pay its players. It is telling that this is a uniquely American concept, along with “revenue sharing” that is increasingly creeping into the soccer world.
The oddness of American football is not simply confined to its organizational structure, i.e. its status as a government-protected cartel, reliant on taxpayer funding and relations with labor unions. The playing of the game itself is, sadly, unique to America.
Every athlete has a clearly defined and limited “position.” Teams run pre-set “plays” which are memorized by players and dictated by coaches on the sidelines. In football, coaches determine every play and the athletes just execute the plays. Individual players can execute these plays brilliantly, but they rarely have the opportunity to seize the initiative and execute a new pattern based on situations on the field.
Even accounting for these particular anachronisms, I used to enjoy watched the NFL and I still enjoy watching college football. Unfortunately, both are becoming 4+ hour commercial loops, broken up by short-films of padded men throwing or running with a ball.
I love watching soccer, and I love the World Cup, but I get that one’s mileage may vary. To me, there is no greater display of individual initiative and excellence combined with great team play. Players on the field have to make their own, quick decisions based on real-time changes in the play. They don’t rely on coaches to dictate their play and they can’t take “time-outs” if their play starts to suffer. Even if injured, the clock keeps ticking down.
I understand the easy, superficial complaints about soccer. I also find many American fans of soccer obnoxious in their self-professed love of the game. Any American using the word “pitch” to describe a soccer field is a person I don’t want to know, for example.
What I don’t understand is the vitriol with which sport’s commentators and writers feel the need to use when discussing soccer. The oft-repeated observation that football is “American” or “red-blooded” because of all the tackling reminds me of a short guy driving a Hummer. Have these people heard of rugby? France, of all places, after all, is a powerhouse of a sport which is American football without the pads.
If sports writers can square that knot, then perhaps I’ll listen to their criticisms about soccer.
So, by all means, yell and scream how much more “American” football is today than soccer. Mostly, we soccer fans don’t care. Deep down, though, as Americans, we’re also afraid you might be right.