Why, despite everything, America will never embrace soccer.
12:00 AM, Jun 22, 2006 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
THERE'S GOOD NEWS and bad news on the World Cup front. The bad news is that, despite the instructions your media overlords have given you, no one in America is watching the great quadrennial soccer carnival. Sure, if you read only the headlines ("World Cup Ratings Soar"; "World Cup Scoring with American Viewers"), you might think America has finally submitted and embraced soccer.
But the numbers don't lie. The first Sunday network World Cup broadcast scored a 2.7 rating. Each rating point represents just less than 1 million households. To put that in perspective, the women's French Open final did a 1.9 on a Saturday morning; the national spelling bee pulled a 5.9. The game between Team USA and the Czech Republic had a rating of 2.4.
The good news is that it will take a near miracle for the U.S. squad to advance to the next round. That's good because, truth be told, you and I don't care and the rest of the world cares very, very much. An American loss in the World Cup is basically a requirement for international stability. Look how upset everyone got when we toppled a murderous dictator in Iraq. What would happen if America--not just America, but George Bush's America!--won the World Cup? Panic? Riots? The upheaval of civilizations? It wouldn't surprise me if Bush's "pep talk" with Bruce Arena before the Czech game was really a veiled threat: "Hey, coach, good luck out there. If you win, the vice president wants to take you quail hunting."
What would be particularly galling to the international community is that if we won the Cup, Americans would care about as much as they do when we win gold medals in the men's biathlon or women's downhill at the Olympics.
Why don't we like soccer? We all play it when we're young. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, more than 17 million Americans played soccer in 2006, putting it just behind basketball and football in team sports popularity. And in those other sports, you don't even get orange slices at halftime.
And watching soccer is kind of fun. Not real fun, like watching the Eagles, or professional basketball, or the Sixers. But fun in the exotic sense, like Olympic curling. After all, in this country, we're suckers for any sort of competition. Put the Little League World Series on TV, and we'll watch it. Just the other day, I saw competitive dominoes on one of the ESPN networks. Soccer is way better than dominoes.
But there is one obstacle to soccer acceptance that seems insurmountable: the flop-'n'-bawl.
Turn on a World Cup game, and within 15 minutes you'll see a grown man fall to the ground, clutch his leg and writhe in agony after being tapped on the shoulder by an opposing player. Soccer players do this routinely in an attempt to get the referees to call foul. If the ref doesn't immediately bite, the player gets up and moves along.
Making a show of your physical vulnerability runs counter to every impulse in American sports. And pretending to be hurt simply compounds the outrage. Basketball has floppers, but the players who do it--like Bill Laimbeer, whose flopping skills helped the Detroit Pistons win two NBA championships--are widely vilified and, in any case, they're pretending to be fouled; they never pretend to be injured. When baseball players are hit by a pitch, the code of conduct dictates that they can walk it off, if they must, but by no means may they rub the point of impact. And pretending you're hurt? There's not even a rule against that--every red-blooded American baseball cheater knows nobody would ever do that.
In football, players make demonstrations of their toughness, jumping up after the most vicious hits. In 2002, Donovan McNabb suffered a broken ankle during a game against Arizona. He barely flinched. And he played the rest of the game, too.
For Americans, a sport in which pretending you're injured is a good thing doesn't make sense. Our greatest sports moments come from athletes who are really hurt, but hide their pain: Willis Reed playing Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals with a torn leg muscle; Curt Schilling's bloody sock in the 2004 ALCS and World Series; Kerri Strug sticking the gold-medal vault with ruptured ligaments in her ankle during the 1996 Olympic Games; Michael Jordan's 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals, when he was so sick he could barely stand upright.
That's the American ideal. You play tough, you gain no advantage from being down, and you never, ever let the other guy see that you're hurt.
Unless the international soccer culture changes, we aren't going to embrace the game. And one of these days, an American side will win a World Cup anyway. Let's hope, for the sake of the Bush doctrine, that that day is a long way off.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a weekly op-ed contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. This essay originally appeared in the June 18, 2006 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.