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Sunday, June 25, 2006

World Cup in a Teapot Ghana 2-1 USA

Okay, so I didn't think we had a chance to beat Ghana 5-0 or anything like that, but I thought we could beat them. Sure we got hosed by another bad call from the ref, but call or no call, we were not the better team. We just didn't show the conviction or energy that we had v Italy.

So we're done, and no I have to listen to all manner of pundits talk about how this will affect soccer in America. Every four years, the Americans who love soccer and the sportswriters and broadcasters have a mutual wank-fest yelling at each other across the gulf of understanding. The soccer lovers shout loudly about the inability of American sportswriters to adequately and accurately cover a game they know little about. The mainstream sportswriters cannot help but insert smug remarks about how boring soccer is. I find it amazing how each group can continually rehash the same tedious remarks. I side with the soccer lovers--the game is beautiful, full of tension and grace in equal measures.

I enjoy other sports like football (avec helmets), basketball and even a baseball game, but they all lack the fluidity, spectacle and social import of soccer. Basketball comes closest to the grace and fluidity, but is hampered by the fact that scoring happens continuously, diminishing each basket. Additionally, basketball in the final minutes repeatedly stops the action with free-throws and a seemingly infinite amount of time-outs. I watched a couple of Suns-Mavericks games of the NBA playoffs just before the Cup, and it was mind-numbingly frustrating to see the last 30 seconds drawn out for 20 minutes. Football approaches the spectacle, but the NFL ruins the game by creating superficial entertainment all around the action. The fans are relegated to automatons; though in the stands, they are merely watching a very large screen tv. Compare even the most intense rivalry of the NFL to a Barcelona-Madrid game or another match-up between England and Argentina. College football comes closest with rivalries like Michigan v Ohio State or Army-Navy. The stands are rolling with passion and devotion that sweeps the stadium beyond a game and into a transcendent, communal experience. Finally baseball captures an essence of Americana--especially at the minor league level. But even at it's best, baseball is such a bucollic and intellectual game that it simply cannot capture the passion of America. Witness the feeble World Baseball Classic this spring.

Soccer has all these three. Plus, it is a far better game than any of the other three to play. Speaking as a former child baseball player, baseball is a lousy sport for kids (sorry, dad). My memories of baseball are long stretches of boredom in the outfield watching two guys play catch. Baseball is perverse. The most fun in any sport is in the offense. We want to score, we want to be the guy who moves the team ahead. Baseball manages to create a game where almost no action exists on the field, and when it does, 70%-90% of the people on the field are playing defense. The game is so abstract, that at the highest level, they need 4 referees to make the most minute calls.

Football is just an insanely violent sport that shouldn't be played by anyone. Any game that requires so much protective equipment isn't a sport, but a gladitorial battle that ought to be sanctioned by civilized people. It's not so bad on the sand-lot level, with no pads. But any sport that glorifies a 400 pound lump of lard as an "athlete" and perhaps even a star "athlete," needs rethinking. 400 pound people are not athletes. They are medical conditions lacking treatment.

Basketball comes close, but height plays to strong a role in determining the better players. Yet because basketball includes such fast-paced motion, improvisation and teamwork, it comes close to being a viable competitor to soccer as a participatory sport.

Still, soccer can't be beat. Small players are often better than larger ones. No one player can dominate a game without help from teammates. Equipment requirements are minor. And the game, even on the small scale, provides for moments of beauty, even for such a plodding amatuer like me. The graceful arc of the ball over the wall and into the top corner of the net, just beyond the outstretched fingertips of the soaring goalkeeper: this is a thing of beauty that exceeds anything I've done in print. Or take the delicate one-touch passes among three players in the box, each avoiding the crasing tackles around them by fractions of a second until the last drives the ball past a keeper desperately scrambling into position; the action is like the solo cello over the massive power of the orchestra. A theme that sings above the thunder below.


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