Since June 14, soccer, excuse me, futbol, has been my life.
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. I have not taken my eye off the Red Sox and I have been monitoring the NBA and NHL drafts. And there’s always the saga of LeBron, who, by the way, is a known soccer/futbol enthusiast. But I have been both watching and listening to what’s been going on in Russia, as have a surprising amount of my fellow Americans.
They tell me the TV ratings are down 44 percent from 2014, when Team USA was a participant. I have long been suspicious of TV ratings, and all I can tell you is that in my local and regional travels of late I sense a definite fascination with the World Cup. Yes, of course, it would have been far better if the United States had qualified this time. We had been involved in every World Cup since 1990, but we stumbled this time, losing an embarrassing game to Trinidad and Tobago when all we needed to qualify was a draw, or “tie,” as we like to call it in our great land.
Full disclosure: I am no soccer/futbol maven. I would be disingenuous were I to claim some sort of expertise in the affairs of our own professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS). But at least dating from 1994, when the United States paid proper service to the event, I have latched onto the drama and pageantry of an event that, whether Americans wish to grasp it or not, is more important to more people worldwide than the Olympics.
The simple fact is that soccer/futbol remains the No. 1 sport in the world. The discussion as to where it fits in this country, and where it may fit in future years, is ongoing. I think we can safely say that in terms of team sports at a professional level, it is No. 5, behind the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL. It was No. 5 in 1994 and it remains No. 5 in 2018. But there is no doubt it is a stronger No. 5. In markets such as Seattle and Portland it is higher than No. 5. That list will surely increase.
It has always made sense to me why soccer has not gotten more popular in America and why it has ascended to the top spot globally. Let’s start with the latter premise. Soccer is simple and relatively cheap. Find a reasonable round object to kick, construct a goal of some sort, and you can have a game that resembles soccer. You don’t need much more than a pair of feet, or perhaps some sneakers and an outfit that can get dirty, and you can play soccer. The game doesn’t require great girth or great height. Some of its greatest practitioners have not been very big. Diego Maradona was/is in the 5-foot-6-inch range. I’m sure the average star player in 2018 may be marginally larger than the average star player in 1950 or 2002, but not significantly so. There are no Shaqs. There are no Charas. There are barely any Hardens, if any. Regular-sized people can excel at this game.
So why aren’t we better? And why aren’t we as fanatical as so much of the globe about the game?
You will hear the standard arguments. Only one of the 11 participants on a side — that’s soccer lingo — can use his or her hands. In our Big 4 games hands are crucial to most of the key players (offensive and defensive linemen generally excepted). Americans can’t deal with that, we are told. There isn’t enough scoring. People here make constant fun of 0-0 and 1-0 games. There aren’t enough payoffs for the average American fan. Elsewhere people don’t worry about that. They are prepared to celebrate the goals when they come. They thrill to the saves and the bullets that hit the post or crossbar. It’s just all OK with them.
Another objection to soccer/futbol is the flopping and acting so many players do hoping to induce fouls and yellow cards and perhaps even penalty kicks. Yes, it can occasionally be annoying, but to me it’s part of the sport’s charm. Referees just have to separate the flopping from the legitimate fouling, just as NBA refs do. In no way should it interfere with the overall enjoyment of the game.
Others say they can’t get into it because FIFA itself is so corrupt. Yes, it is. But once the game starts, I can forget about that. You want to talk about how it came to Russia and how could they possibly give it to Qatar in 2022? I’m with you. Later. Not now.
Why aren’t we better? There are many reasons. That’s a topic for another day.
Yes, I got used to the United States at least being there. It’s nice to have that rooting interest. But I absolutely love being a voyeur as the others ride the agony/ecstasy/agony/ecstasy roller coaster. The World Cup quite clearly transcends sport. A quality side is a source of immense pride for a country, and while we know that in the Big Picture you would think other things are clearly more important in daily lives, there is something to be said for fixating on something that takes you away, however temporarily, from those weighty matters and allows you to focus on a specific smaller thing that puts pleasure in your life. The essence of what the World Cup means to so many people was the spontaneous reaction of the Mexican fans, who on Wednesday carried some South Koreans on their shoulders in gratitude for an upset South Korean victory over Germany, an outcome that put the Mexicans through to the Round of 16 and sent the startled defending champion Germans home. If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what could.
Knowing this, and knowing the soccer/futbol history of so many of these nations, the World Cup is something I can’t ignore. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a soccer/futbol aficionado to plug into this event.
I have found myself both watching on TV and listening to games on the radio, and what a sensational experience it was to hear the broadcasters of the Mexico-Sweden game on Wednesday describe the dual events, as Sweden, the play-by-man kept saying, was “destroying” Mexico, even as he and his color man cohort were keeping a TV eye on the South Korea-Germany game. South Korea finally scored, but the goal was originally waved off and thus was subject to video review. The announcer was describing the hysterical reaction of the Mexican crowd, which was following the South Korea-Germany game on social media. He warned the Mexican fans to keep calm, pending the review. All the while he was supposed to be describing the Mexico-Sweden game.
If you’re a real American sports fan, how could you not be rhapsodized by all this? It was out-and-out fun. I truly can’t get inside the heads of supposed sports fans who still don’t get it.
I know, I know. It’s not proper to lecture people on what to think. But I’m sorry. You don’t have to love soccer; that’s true. But you should be able to appreciate a great event.
And the World Cup is a great event.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.