A Surfeit of Soccer

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world cup games in dupont circle by cristinabe on flickr.com via a Creative Commons Attribution LicenceFinally, blissfully, we near the Quarterfinal stage of the 2010 World Cup—not because the quality of play increases (mostly) as the teams are winnowed down, not because the stakes are higher and teams play for wins (usually) instead of group stage points, but because we’ll get a break for a few days.

Whew. It’s been soccer day in and day out for nearly three weeks. We get two days off before Friday’s matches.

I’ve watched a ton of soccer this World Cup, as I’ve tried to with every World Cup since 1986 (anyone remember the bright red Budweiser border around the match action on American TV for the Final that year, to deal with the lack of commercial time-outs?), but with online streaming, I’m watching more than I thought I could. Not just the marquee matches, either, but games like Cameroon/Denmark and Slovakia/New Zealand.

Why? Because I live in fear of missing that transcendent goal, that last-ditch equalizer, that stud-perfect tackle or fingertip, round-the-post save. The outcomes of the games are, largely, irrelevant to me as a neutral in those matches, but watching an after-the-fact replay just doesn’t cut it. There’s something quite unsatisfying in seeing a soccer highlight stripped of its game context.

To watch soccer, to spectate, requires experiencing the whole match. Tension is built into soccer, almost symphonically; a goal against the run of play has a much different flavor when you’ve watched the other side dominate, a quick shriek of woodwinds breaking a long melody by strings (assuming woodwinds can shriek, of course). A replay is soccer shorn of that context, and however much I glory at a far post cross met by a header, if I didn’t see that same towering center back almost give up a goal earlier by getting nutmegged, it lacks the nuance that makes soccer such a wonderful sport. It’s just a goal, and not a moment.

And I need a break. It’s exhausting.

(Image courtesy of Cristina Bejarano via a Creative Commons Attribution License)

Explaining the Beautiful Game

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A comment over on Goal, the New York Times‘ fine soccer blog (though I’ve always found it silly that newspapers insist on calling their non-printed commentary “blogs”) got me thinking about the extent to which Americans don’t understand soccer—not from a cultural standpoint, which is a separate topic entirely, but from a technical standpoint.

DSC_9982 by edtrigger on flickr.com via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives license

Commenter DMacM131 writes, in response to Jeffrey Marcus’ post, “Green Faces the Music; Chaochi Repeats His Mistake”:

As a quadrennial soccer fan, I was in the dark about many actions […] I hope the US team gets a better draw next game… Not the competition, but the commentators. I wouldn’t be offended if a commentator explained some of the baseball rules during the World Series or hockey rules and strategy during the Stanley Cup.

Several other commenters chimed in on this point, arguing back and forth about whether a World Cup broadcast is truly the time and place to explain offsides or the implications of receiving a yellow card. It’s an interesting question, one that gets to the heart of soccer’s struggle to capture America’s interest as a major component of our sporting life (as opposed to being primarily a children’s sport).

Some people are “in the know,” aware of the predominant stylistic differences between the Premier League and Serie A, aware of what a 451 formation looks like and why a team might employ such a structure, and are watching all of the World Cup group games that they can. And some people tune in once every four years to watch the US National Team play on a national free-to-air television network, much as they might have tuned in to “Wide World of Sports” two decades ago to see rugby or motorcycle racing. To whom do you cater? The existing fan, or the potential fan?

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