The nihilism of soccer: The more you look, the less there is to see.
IN ITS RECENT WORLD CUP CONTEST WITH ITALY, the U.S. team played what was widely regarded by the sport's connoisseurs as one of the best games ever played by an American soccer squad on foreign soil.
The historic game with Italy ended in an epic 1-1 tie. But in what was ballyhooed as one of the greatest games ever played by an American team, the United States failed to score. The goal credited to the Americans was scored by an opposing player who--oops!--accidentally kicked the ball into his own goal.
Think about this about this for a moment. It just about sums up everything you need to know about soccer, or football, as it is known elsewhere.
Soccer is the perfect game for the post-modern world. It's the quintessential expression of the nihilism that prevails in many cultures, which doubtlessly accounts for its wild popularity in Europe. Soccer is truly Seinfeldesque, a game about nothing, sport as sensation.
Most soccer matches end in scoreless ties (or nil, nil in soccer parlance), 1-1 deadlocks or 1-0 victories. A final score of 2-1 is regarded as a veritable outburst of offense, an avalanche of goal scoring that leaves exhausted fans shaking their heads and pining for the old days when teams knew how to play strong defense. A score of 2-0 is said to be a crushing victory (or defeat) of Carthaginian proportions rendering national shame and humiliation and potentially resulting in coup d'etat, or even war.
In truth, soccer could be played without using a ball at all, and few would notice the difference. The game consists of 22 men running up and down a grassy field for 90 minutes with little happening as fans scream wildly. When the ball actually approaches one of the goals, the fans reach fever pitch and the cheering becomes a deafening roar.
Of course, these infrequent occurrences in which the soccer ball approaches the end zone--where goaltenders wile away their time perusing magazines, trimming their fingernails or inspecting blades of grass--rarely result in a shot on goal. Most often the ball ends up high over the goal, missing everything by 20 or 30 feet. These "near misses" typically send the fans into paroxysms; TV announcers scream themselves hoarse. Then the players mill about the field for another 20 or 30 minutes or so and the goaltenders return to their musings before the ball returns, like Halley's comet in its far-flung orbit, for another pass in the general vicinity of the goal.
Mostly soccer is just guys in shorts running around aimlessly, a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life. Whole blocks of game time transpire during which absolutely nothing happens. Fortunately, this permits fans to slip out for a bratwurst and a beer without missing anything important. It's little wonder fans at times resort to brawling amongst themselves in the grandstands, as there is so little transpiring on the field of play to occupy their wandering attention. Watching men in shorts scampering around has its limitations. It's like gazing too long at a painting by de Kooning or Jackson Pollock. The more you look, the less there is to see.
DESPITE HEROIC EFFORTS of soccer moms, suburban liberals, and World Cup hype, soccer will never catch on as a big time sport in America. No game in which actually scoring goals is of such little importance could possibly occupy the attention of average Americans. Our country has yet to succumb to the nihilism, existentialism, and anomie that have overtaken Europe. A game about nothing, in which scoring is purely incidental, holds scant interest for Americans who still believe the world makes sense, that life has a larger meaning and structure, that being is not an end in itself, being qua being.
Another reason why soccer will never enthrall Americans is that the game is contrary to nature. What is it that is unique to the physical makeup of human beings that sets us apart from the animal world? Two things: Our large brains and our grasping hands with opposable thumbs. Our big brain is why we're called homo sapiens, thinking man. And our ability to use our hands to grasp and manipulate objects is why one of our early ancestors was designated homo habilis, handy man. Human beings are thinking toolmakers. We're able to imagine the arrowhead in the stone and use our hands to carve it out of the rock. These two uniquely human traits have allowed us to become the dominant species on the planet.
Yet soccer flies in the face of nature. In almost all other sports, the head is protected against injury. Players wear helmets and try to avoid contact with sticks, bats, balls, elbows, fists, roadways, goalposts and other things that might inflict injury on that big brain that gives humans the ability to plan ahead, calculate, strategize, coordinate eye and hand movements, anticipate the consequence of actions--in other words, to play the game.
But soccer players use their heads, deliberately, to contact the ball. This is contrary to all human instinct, which is to keep the head out of the way of danger. Duck, you idiot! Protecting the head against injury is deeply rooted in our nature. It's an evolutionary survival response. Sacrifice a limb if you must, give up an arm or leg, but protect your head at all costs. Yet in soccer the player is encouraged, no, expected to hit the ball with his head. This is as stupid an action as a human being can undertake.
Secondly, any game which prohibits the use of the hands is contrary to nature. Opposable thumbs allow humans to grasp things (thumbs on other primate hands such as chimps and orangutans are splayed out the side and are not truly opposable.) This is why the games human beings play involve holding things such as baseball bats, golf clubs and hockey sticks, or to grip and throw objects like a ball or a Frisbee.
Soccer denies its players this most basic human ability. Players cannot catch or throw the ball. But they can hit it with their heads. If one were to set out to invent a game fundamentally at odds with human nature, soccer would be it. Place the head with its big brain in constant danger, and prohibit the use of the hands. Soccer denies to its players the very attributes that make human beings, the thinking toolmaker, human.
Actually, the donkey would have a significant advantage over humans in soccer. It has four legs rather than two. The donkey has no hands or opposable thumbs, nor any need of them in order to play soccer. And smashing its head into a soccer ball probably would not cause any diminution of equine IQ. Soccer, then, would appear to be a game better suited to dim-witted quadrupeds than to human beings.
Frank Cannon and Richard Lessner, consultants with Capital City Partners, have spent most of the World Cup watching ESPN re-runs of the world's strongest man contest.