Today, as Germany and the United States play their final match of World Cup Group G, we in the chattering class get to debate yet again about whether Americans will truly embrace soccer with the same passion that they embrace football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has an ambivalent relationship with this sport. On the one hand, as I wrote in 2006 and 2010, it’s not obvious to me that we should want Americans to embrace soccer with the same fervor as Europeans and Latin Americans. Furthermore, as Derek Thompson pointed out this week, the television ratings show that Americans think of the World Cup the same way they think of most Olympic sports; something to be watched only once every four years. On the other hand, some of these games have been really exciting, and there’s even been some zombie-like behavior on the field. Plus, my son really seems into the games, and I endorse anything that can get a 13-year old boy in Stage IV Adolescence to be excited about anything not involving first-person shooter games on his computer.
So what will it take for Americans to really, truly embrace soccer as anything other than a quadrennial event? I think the sport will have to become a little bit more American. In saying this, I don’t necessarily mean more scoring (though that wouldn’t hurt). I mean the sport needs to do a better job of showing that the differences in effort and talent on the pitch are reflected in the outcome of the game.
Let me explain. In Slate, Josh Levin tried to explain what bad sports punditry looks like:
This is the fundamental disconnect of sports commentary, and of sports in general: The scoreboard is definitive and irrefutable, and it often doesn’t reflect what happened on the field. As Bradley’s longtime teammate Landon Donovan said on ESPN after the Portugal game, “[The U.S.] should have lost against Ghana and they absolutely should have won today.” But they didn’t. How can you explain that? The answer is that stuff happens, stuff that doesn’t make sense. Things that should happen don’t. In the 95th minute of an excruciatingly tense and competitive game, a player does the one thing he shouldn’t do.
Levin is right and wrong in that paragraph. He’s very much right about the caprice of soccer. I’ve heard the phrase “soccer is a cruel game” quite a bit over the past week. Having watched both games, I’ll stipulate that Donovan is right: based on their performance, the United States should have lost against Ghana and won against Portugal. And that seems to happen a lot in soccer. The better team that day doesn’t win all that frequently.
Where Levin wanders off the rails is the notion that this is a common occurrence in all sports. Oh, sure, on occasion, a team will win a football or baseball game in which they were outplayed. But it’s pretty damn rare, and it’s particularly rare at the championship level. No one thinks the San Antonio Spurs lucked their way into an NBA championship — they just outplayed the Miami Heat. This doesn’t mean that upsets don’t happen in sports, but when those upsets do happen, it’s usually because the underdog outplayed the favorite. As a New York Giants fan living in New England Patriots-land, I can attest that the two recent Giant Super Bowl victories did not go down well in this region. That said, Patriots fans have never argued that the Giants lucked their way to victory. Maybe eight times out of ten, the Patriots would beat the Giants. But even New England fans acknowledge that during those two Super Bowl games, the Giants outplayed the Pats.
Luck, whimsy, and bad refereeing exist in all sports, but in the ones that Americans like to follow, there is a sense that teams that play better on the field can powerfully influence their destiny. And this feeling is rather unique to the United States. Indeed, in public opinion surveys, what distinguishes Americans from others is their belief that they control their fate. Three years ago, Pew reported a stark contrast between the American and European responses to this question:
Asked if they agree that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” Americans again offer more individualistic views than those expressed by Western Europeans. Only 36% of Americans believe they have little control over their fate, compared with 50% in Spain, 57% in France and 72% in Germany; Britain is the only Western European country surveyed where fewer than half (41%) share this view.
The thing about American sports is that, by and large, talent and effort do win out — the team that plays better on the day of the match wins. I’ve watched a healthy number of World Cup matches, however, and in this sport, the correlation between effort and outcome seems to be the weakest. One team can thoroughly outplay the other and still leave the pitch with a tie or a loss, and it seems to happen all the damn time. The rest of the world accepts this lack of control over fate; not so much in the United States.
So what will it take for Americans to embrace soccer on a more consistent basis? Well, if Americans start to reject the notion that they can control their destiny, soccer might seem more appealing to them as a game of the Fates. I’m not sure that’s really a desirable outcome, however. On the other hand, if the better team that day wins the match, then soccer will start to seem more American.
To FIFA’s credit, there have been some shifts in this direction. Rule changes have helped to reduce the flopping that used to be endemic to this sport. This is the first World Cup to use goal-line technology to make sure this doesn’t happen again. A few more rule nudges in this direction — like, say, eliminating the vagaries surrounding stoppage time — and I can see a healthy fraction of Americans embracing the sport more than once every four years.
Also if the United States wins some games.