A week after the Champions League final, at a time in America when soccer has managed a tenuous security while remaining in the background, I’ve been thinking about the process by which we convert ourselves to the sport. Television exposure is a positive step, but word-of-mouth support is what soccer needs to reach the mainstream. There’s plenty of willing witnesses, so why is it such an incremental revolution? Where does their failure lie?
I've found three problems with the American soccer missionaries.
1 - Rarely- so rarely- have they been converted from Our Sports. I've never heard anyone talk about how they used to be a football fanatic but have decided soccer is the better game.
Instead, you get the sense that ardent soccer fans in America have always felt alienated by the sports we love. Particularly football, and I say that because football seems to be soccer’s most direct competition, the bloodiest theater of the war. The missionaries will tell you about football. Football is slow and littered with interruptions. Football has about 12 minutes of ball-in-play action in any given three-hour game. Football is regimented, restricted.
But the lack of love weakens their credibility. If I'm a drug addict seeking redemption, I want to hear from the addicts who have recovered, not from the righteous Mormon at my door who's never touched a drop of alcohol. If Terry Bradshaw phoned me up and spoke about his conversion to soccer, I'd be interested. Less so for the self-assured hipster who never succumbed to the old gridiron faith.
If you missed that magic, how am I supposed to trust you?
2 - The missionaries say that soccer is the world's most popular sport. And, to be fair, they're 100% right. It's beyond dispute.
By using this argument, though, they ignore the impressive American capacity for believing in our own superiority. And I'm not targeting some Tea Party stereotype here; I'm also including myself.
When the missionaries talk about soccer’s popularity, they believe they’re presenting a compelling argument. Hey, morons, listen: a whole world of humans is in love with this game. And for all we know, Earth is the only place in existence with sentient beings. So what we're really saying is that, quite possibly, this is the most-loved sport in the entire universe. And not just now, but ever. In the whole expansive history of space and time, soccer is number one.
The logic seems sound. But what they're doing is giving Americans an easy excuse to dismiss soccer and believe more fully in our own ignorance. We’re quite comfortable with the idea that our country is wiser than the rest of the world, and, by extension, the universe. By telling us that everyone else disagrees, the missionaries confirm an existing prejudice: everyone else is kind of an idiot.
3 - They talk about soccer as ‘the beautiful game.’
I've come to the conclusion that soccer is, in fact, beautiful. But it's beautiful in the way that life is beautiful, which is to say: not very often.
Imagine a friendly alien comes down to Earth. You’re eager to show him around, because look at all the civilization! Look at the great buildings, and the great cities, and the beautiful countryside, and the culture, and everything!
So you take the alien to New York City. You land just about dusk, and there, sitting on the sidewalk, is a homeless man. And not some profound, sagacious homeless man who dispenses pearls of wisdom; no, this is a homeless man who, for the sake of argument, has just lost control of his bowels. And he's kind of moaning in this awful, suffering way, and there are flies buzzing around his head. Then a woman walks by with her kid. She's wearing a red business suit, and her black pumps are clacking on the concrete, and she says, "oh, that's disgusting" loud enough for the homeless man to hear. "Come on, Jeremy," she commands her child.
The boy is about 9 years old. He seems totally unaffected by the homeless man, and he gives an entitled giggle just before shoving a fistful of candy into his mouth. The two leave, and just then, a car full of teenagers races past. One of them leans out the window, screams "get a job!", and throws an empty whiskey bottle at the homeless man's head.
You turn to the alien. "I swear," you say, "that’s not what it’s like here."
"No, I’m sure it’s great," says the alien. "Still, it’s getting late..."
It's the same story with soccer. Someone preaches about how, despite the scarcity of goals, the flow of the game is beautiful, even sublime. So you finally watch a match, and...
80 minutes pass with no goals. Both teams play cautious, and the few offensive advances are snuffed out. In the 85th minute, the most annoying player on the team you like less pretends to be tripped in the penalty box. The replay shows he wasn't touched, but he rolls around holding his knee, face contorted in agony, his free arm shaking in a gesture of dramatic supplication, exhorting God or the referee to answer the injustice. The referee, if not God, is fooled. Penalty awarded. The player pops up as though he's never experienced anything less than perfect health. He buries the penalty, and the game ends 1-0.
Here’s the point: you can't talk about the beauty of soccer. It will undermine itself every time.
I can't tell you that Barcelona's passing really was an elevated art form last Saturday; that they played like the whole match was choreographed and they could choose when to score, but that the ballet only called for three goals. That even David Villa, the player who I kind of hate based on a gut reaction to his face, scored the most beautiful goal of all on a curling kick to the top right corner.
With soccer, the experience is everything. The words accomplish nothing. I might as well try to explain the feeling of laughter, or bore you with the ridiculous plot of a dream that shook me to the bone.