Society and Culture

The Not-so-beautiful Game

Yesterday, in what might be one of most stunning upsets ever, the U.S. men’s soccer team beat Spain 2–0. In doing so, the U.S. team beat the top-ranked national team in the world, ended Spain’s record-setting unbeaten streak of 35 games, and put the Americans in the finals of the Confederations Cup being held this year in South Africa. This will be the first ever FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) final for the team. On Sunday, the U.S. will play either the Brazil or host South Africa for the championship. All in all, a great moment for the sport we call “soccer” but the rest of the world refers to as “football.”

Watching the game, one could not have been happier for a team that has not really performed all that well in recent years or, for that matter, in the first few games of this tournament. Indeed, in the first two games, the U.S. was hammered by Italy and Brazil and only got into the semifinal match by beating Egypt and the fluke of a very arcane scoring system that soccer uses to break ties among teams. And even in this game, a neutral observer would have said that Spanish players clearly outplayed the Americans, outshooting the U.S. squad by a margin of 20 shots on goal. As the U.S. goalkeeper and star of the game Tim Howard noted afterwards, “Sometimes football is a funny thing.”

Well, yes, it is. As someone who didn’t play soccer growing up, but had a dad who did and whose own kids played as well, I can say unquestionably that it is the sport in which the team that dominates loses more often than any other major sport I know of. Or, to put it more bluntly, the team that deserves to win doesn’t. For some soccer-loving friends, this is perfectly okay. Indeed, they will argue that it’s a healthy, conservative reminder of how justice does not always prevail in life.

Well, hooey on that. And, thankfully, Americans are not buying it. In spite of the fact that one can drive by an open field on Saturdays and usually see it filled with young boys and girls playing soccer, the game’s popularity has not moved anywhere toward being a major sport here in the United States. It’s grown for sure but not close to where folks once expected it to be given the number of youth that have played the game over the past two decades.

For sure, there may be a number of reasons that is the case but my suspicion is that the so-called “beautiful game” is not so beautiful to American sensibilities. We like, as good small “d” democrats, our underdogs for sure but we also still expect folks in the end to get their just desert. And, in sports, that means excellence should prevail. Of course, the fact that is often not the case when it comes to soccer may be precisely the reason the sport is so popular in the countries of Latin America and Europe.

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