It has long been a subject of fascination that the United States,
virtually alone in the world, has rejected soccer. Andrei S.
Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman, who have written a book called
Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism (Princeton University
Press), compare this phenomenon with another, more significant
"American exceptionalism"--the fact that the U.S. has never
embraced socialism. Messrs. Markovits and Hellerman even provide,
on two pages, a cogent catalog of reasons why socialism hasn't
found acceptance here. Unfortunately, in the next couple hundred
pages, they don't explain nearly as well why we don't give a hoot
Oh, Markovits and Hellerman do a fine job of laying out how
soccer missed the boat when baseball and football were
establishing their hegemony here. Soccer did not get itself into
schools and colleges. The sport's American organization, such as
it was, proved to be inept. Soccer was stigmatized as a foreign
game. Once it failed to find room in the U.S. "sport space"
(schedules, newspaper coverage, etc.), its also-ran fate was
The difficulties soccer faced here in its early years, however,
don't begin to explain its current plight. Baseball, after all,
has never been run by a Pericles, yet it prospered from the
start. Basketball was largely played by immigrants but outgrew
this stigma. Ice hockey didn't really exist here till half a
century after soccer had arrived, yet hockey became the half in
what the authors refer to, very nicely, as the "Big Three and
One-Half" of American team sports. So we must come back to the
seminal possibility the authors avoid: Soccer simply may be
antithetical to the U.S. temperament and sensibility. It is not
for us to feel guilty that we are out of step. Rather, it is for
us to feel sorry for the rest of the world that it is not lucky
enough to have games as good as the ones we have.
After all, the authors ignore perhaps our greatest distinction.
We don't import culture. The only two major foreign items America
has accepted recently are water in bottles and the Wonder Bra,
and these both relate to modern life's essentials--water and
cleavage being as vital to our society as food and shelter. No,
what we Americans do is we pass along our stuff to other,
impressionable peoples: movies, music, Coca-Cola, the English
language, basketball, bacon double cheeseburgers and what have
For goodness' sake, though, soccer has had even more chances here
than Hillary gave Bill. We are, to start with, chock-full of
immigrants who grew up in countries in which the game is adored.
Huge sums have been invested in a succession of professional
leagues that have received inordinate amounts of Pollyanna
publicity. Pele was brought here to troop the futbol colors. The
authors detail, at length, how many American children now play
soccer. (Yes, soccer is terrific exercise, almost as good as tai
chi--and nobody wants to pay to see that, either.)
See, there's the rub. If soccer had never had an opportunity
here, one could argue that its time must surely come. But soccer
has been jammed down our throats--and found wanting. The leagues
fray, the TV ratings barely gurgle, and soccer kids can't wait
for soccer moms to pick them up at practice so they can go home
and watch true-blue 'Mercan games. (Participation never equates
to spectator popularity, anyway. Twice as many high school kids
are on track and cross-country teams as play soccer, and the last
time I looked, Yankee Stadium wasn't packed for a track meet.)
Desperately, soccer smug-nuts always fall back on accusing us
American yahoos of failing to appreciate the grace and nuance of
their superior game. First of all, any sport in which you hit a
hard ball with your head is, ipso facto, neither graceful nor
nuanced. Even ignoring that ugly idiosyncrasy, any
run-of-the-mill 6-4-3 double play is more graceful than the most
precious soccer maneuver. And nuance? For pete's sake, every
sport has nuance. Hello. That's why Tim McCarver, John Madden and
Mary Carillo have jobs. Nuance doesn't make people care. About
99.44% of NFL fans don't have the foggiest what nuances the
nickel defense possesses. So what? It's third and three on the
36. Turn up the volume and crack another brewski.
The authors also make a big deal out of how many Americans saw
the World Cup when it was foisted on the United States in 1994.
That argument is specious too. The World Cup has no more to do
with ordinary soccer than the Kentucky Derby has to do with
Wednesday at Suffolk Downs when 4,500 grizzled septuagenarians
drag in off the streets to box exactas. Markovits and Hellerman
also salivate over the Women's World Cup of 1999, when the U.S.
beat China, 0-0, at the Rose Bowl. The 90,000 attendance is
stressed. What is not dealt with is the score, of which there was
none--excuse me: nil--till we got to the pinball finale.
Why do you think the only image we have of that game is of Brandi
Chastain ripping off her shirt? Because there was nothing in the
game to remember. Sports authors, beware: Don't read too much
into one-shot anomalies. The 1980 victory of the U.S. hockey
darlings over the big, bad Commie bullies is, surely, the most
lionized American game ever. It did nothing whatsoever for hockey
(though it did make Mike Eruzione the Brandi Chastain of 1980).
So soccer has been around these colonial precincts for something
like 125 years. It has had its game of the century. It has
borrowed the player of the century. It has been spoon-fed the
globe's biggest tournament. It has had league after league,
outdoor and in, bankrolled by well-heeled angels. It is blessed
with legions of ready-made fans who immigrate here and millions
of suburban children who are indoctrinated from kindergarten on.
Still, it never catches on.
At a certain point, Markovits and Hellerman, you have to accept
the obvious. It ain't our cup of tea. Nothing wrong with that.
There's no accounting for taste. The same British sophisticates
who call me a parochial rube for not appreciating soccer prefer
watching snooker to basketball. Fine. But here's the nasty
down-home American reality: Far from being graceful, soccer
appears, in fact, awkward. You can't sweetly control a ball using
feet and head any more than you can drive a car fast with your
nose and knees. We value efficiency in the United States. Soccer
Remarkably, Markovits and Hellerman don't offer an in-depth
analysis of how other American sports overcame integral problems
of tedium. Football added the forward pass. Baseball souped up
the old horsehide. Basketball introduced a shot clock. Soccer
says bugger off, barbarians, and learn grace and nuance. We
prefer offense in the United States. Soccer is defensive.
It is not only that soccer lacks scoring, either. It also has no
small victories, no cumulative successes. Baseball teams build
rallies. Football teams drive down the field, even if they have
to settle for a field goal. Soccer is the coitus interruptus of
sport. Watching TV, I'm astounded how announcers ooh and ahh over
some failed play: "What a magnificent run!" Only the player did
not succeed. In the end, the ball was taken from him and he
stumbled back the other way. Nonetheless, analysts keep praising
pretty disappointment, raving about the glory of almost. We
expect satisfaction in the United States. Soccer celebrates
Soccer developed outside the U.S., and unlike most everything
else in the world, it lacks our influence. In countries that
care about soccer, the point is always made, ad nauseum, that
soccer is not a game; it is a way of life. I'm sure that's true.
That's the point that eludes Markovits and Hellerman.
Ultimately, the reason that we don't care about soccer is that
it is un-American. It's somebody else's way of life. So most
American kids abandon interest in the game when they realize
it's not consistent with what they are finding out about
Americanism. The same with immigrants and their children--as
soon as they discover more appealing games that reflect American
spirit, American values. It's really very simple why most of us
nonsocialistic Americans will forever reject soccer.
We are not amused.
COLOR PHOTO: CORBIS
COLOR PHOTO: JERRY COOKE (PELE) Not even the heroics of Pele (left) or Chastain could fuel an American passion for soccer.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above]
Soccer is terrific exercise, almost as good as tai chi--and nobody
wants to pay to see that, either.