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'American sports are played with the hands. Using your feet is for commies'

Millions of children grow up in America playing football. But they all give up by the age of 10. Award-winning writer Dave Eggers explains just why his country will never understand the sport they insist on calling soccer

Sunday April 2, 2006
The Observer

When children in the United States are very young, they believe that soccer is the most popular sport in the world. They believe this because every single child in America plays soccer. It is a rule that they play, a rule set forth in the same hoary document, displayed in every state capital, which insists that six-year-olds also pledge allegiance to the flag - a practice which is terrifying to watch, by the way, good lord - and that once a year, they dress as tiny pilgrims with beards fashioned from cotton.

On Saturdays, every flat green space in the continental US is covered with tiny people in shiny uniforms, chasing the ball up and down the field, to the delight and consternation of their parents, most of whom have no idea what is happening. The primary force behind all of this is the American Youth Soccer Organisation, which was formed in the Seventies to popularise soccer among the youth of America, and did this with startling efficiency. Within a few years, soccer was the sport of choice for parents everywhere, particularly those who harboured suspicions that their children had no athletic ability whatsoever.

The beauty of soccer for very young people is that, to create a simulacrum of the game, it requires very little skill. No other sport can bear such incompetence. With soccer, 22 kids can be running around, most of them aimlessly, or picking weeds by the sidelines, or crying for no apparent reason, and yet the game can have the general appearance of an actual soccer match. If there are three or four co-ordinated kids among the 22 flailing bodies, there will actually be dribbling, a few legal throw-ins, and a couple times when the ball stretches the back of the net. It will be soccer, more or less.

Most of America's children assume that soccer will always be a part of their lives. When I was eight, playing central midfield for the undefeated Strikers (coached by the unparalleled Mr Cooper), I had no life expectations other than that I would continue playing central midfield until such time as I died. It never occurred to me that any of this would change.

But at about age 10, something happens to the children of the United States. Soccer is dropped, quickly and unceremoniously, by approximately 88 per cent of all young people. They move onto baseball, football, basketball, hockey, field hockey, and, sadly, golf. Shortly thereafter, they stop playing these sports, too, and begin watching these sports on television, including, sadly, golf.

The abandonment of soccer is attributable, in part, to the fact that people of influence in America long believed that soccer was the chosen sport of communists. When I was 13 - this was 1983, long before glasnost, let alone the fall of the wall - I had a gym teacher, who for now we'll call Moron McCheeby, who made a very compelling link between soccer and the architects of the Iron Curtain. I remember once asking him why there were no days of soccer in his gym units. His face darkened. He took me aside. He explained with quivering, barely mastered rage, that he preferred decent, honest American sports where you used your hands. Sports where one's hands were not used, he said, were commie sports played by Russians, Poles, Germans and other commies. To use one's hands in sports was American, to use one's feet was the purview of the followers of Marx and Lenin. I believe McCheeby went on to lecture widely on the subject.

It was, by most accounts, 1986 when the residents of the US became aware of the World Cup. The games were not usually broadcast in our country, but isolated reports came from foreign correspondents. We were frightened by these reports, worried about domino effects, and wondered aloud if the trend was something we could stop by placing a certain number of military advisers in Cologne or Marseille. It was not until 1990 that all of the World Cup was broadcast in the US, and even then, in the small hours of the night, and even then, in Spanish.

At the same time, high school soccer was booming in the suburbs of Chicago, due in large part to an influx of foreign exchange students.

My own high school team was ridiculously good by the standards of the day, stacked as it was with extraordinary players from other places. I can still remember the name of the forward who came from, I think, Rome: Alessandro Dazza. He was the best on the team, just ahead of Carlos Gutierrez (not his real name), who hailed from Spain and played midfield. Our best defender was a Vietnamese-American student named Tuan, and there was also Paul Beaupre, who was actually from our own WASP-filled town, but whose name sounded French. We were expected to be the state champions, but we did not come very close. Homewood-Flossmoor, we heard, had a pair of twins from Brazil.

A short time later, after the growth of professional indoor soccer and then some vague stabs at outdoor leagues, we proved to the world that the US was serious, or relatively serious, about soccer, and the World Cup came to America in 1994. At least 4 to 5 per cent of the country heard about this, and some commensurate percentage of them went to the games. This was enough to fill stadiums, and the experiment was considered a success. In the wake of the Cup in America, other outdoor leagues have struggled to gain footing, and the current league seems more or less viable, though newspaper coverage of the games usually is found in the nether regions of the sports section, near the car ads and biathlon round-ups.

Our continued indifference to the sport worshipped around the world can be easily explained in two parts. First, as a nation of loony but determined inventors, we prefer things we thought of ourselves. The most popular sports in America are those we conceived and developed on our own: [American] football, baseball, basketball. If we can claim at least part of the credit for something, as with tennis or the radio, we are willing to be passively interested. But we did not invent soccer, and so we are suspicious of it.

The second and greatest, by far, obstacle to the popularity of the World Cup, and of professional soccer in general, is the element of diving. Americans may generally be arrogant, but there is one stance I stand behind, and that is the intense loathing of penalty-fakers. There are few examples of American sports where diving is part of the game, much less accepted as such. Things are too complicated and dangerous in American football to do much faking. Baseball? It's not possible, really - you can't fake getting hit by a baseball, and it's impossible to fake catching one. The only one of the big three sports that has a dive factor is basketball, where players can and do occasionally exaggerate a foul against them, but get this: the biggest diver in the NBA is not an American at all. He's Argentinian! (Manu Ginobili, a phony to end all phonies, but otherwise a very good player.)

But diving in soccer is a problem. It is essentially a combination of acting, lying, begging and cheating, an unappealing mix. The theatricality of diving is distasteful, as is the slow-motion way the chicanery unfolds. First there will be some incidental contact, and then there will be a long moment - enough to allow you to go and wash the car and return - after the contact and before the diver decides to go down. When you've returned from washing the car and around the time you're making yourself a mini-bagel grilled cheese, the diver will be leaping forward, his mouth Munch-wide and oval, bracing himself for contact with the pitch. But this is just the beginning. Go and do the grocery shopping and perhaps open a new account at the bank, and when you return, our diver will still be on the ground, holding his shin, his head thrown back in mock-agony. It's disgusting, all of it, particularly because, just as all of this fakery takes a good deal of time and melodrama to put over, the next step is so fast that special cameras are needed to capture it. Once the referees have decided either to issue a penalty or not to our Fakey McChumpland, he will jump up, suddenly and spectacular uninjured - excelsior! - and will kick the ball over to his team-mate and move on.

American sports are, for better or worse, built upon transparency, or the appearance of transparency, and on the grind-it-out work ethic. This is why the most popular soccer player in American history is Sylvester Stallone. In fact, the two greatest moments in American soccer both involved Sylvester Stallone. The first came with Escape to Victory, the classic film about Allied soccer-playing PoWs, and the all-star game they play against the Nazis. In that film, Stallone plays an American soldier who must, for some reason - no one can be expected to remember these things - replace the goalie on the PoW team. Stallone does this admirably, the Allies win (I think) and as the crowd surrounds them, they are hidden under coats and fans, and sneak away to freedom.

The second most significant moment came when the World Cup came to the US, in 1994. It is reported that Stallone attended one of the games, and seemed to enjoy it.

It's inevitable, given the way the US teams are improving every year, that eventually we will make it to the semi-final of a World Cup, and it's likely, one would think, that the United States will win it all in the near future. This is a country of limitless wealth and 300 million people, after all, and when we dedicate the proper resources to a project, we get the job done (see Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq). But until we do win the World Cup - and we have no chance this particular time around, being tossed into the Group of Death, which will consume us quickly and utterly - soccer will receive only the grudging acknowledgement of the general populace. Then again, do we really want - or can we even conceive of - an America where soccer enjoys wide popularity or even respect? If you were soccer, the sport of kings, would you want the adulation of a people who elected Bush and Cheney, not once but twice? You would not. You would rather return to your roots, communist or otherwise, and fight fascism with your feet.

· From The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup (Abacus), published next month, and edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,1741375,00.html

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Do you guys see any truth to that, is this how it is?
 

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My experience has been that the kids that are good players will keep playing the game and won't drop it, but the biggest difference between all the countries that I have lived in and the USA (and Paul May disagrees with me on this) is that they American kids don't watch the game on TV.

In Spain, the team that I coached, spent their Mondays, talking about all the weekend games. The conversations were intense and debates would break out all the time, just like they do at XT.

In the US, the teams that I coach, talk about the baseball season, the NCAA tournament, the NLF playoffs and any other sport. But ask them about if Casillas is better than Buffon or if Ronaldinho is indeed the best player in the world, or if Beckham is only poster material and they have no clue what you are talking about.

My own son is going through that period, a kid that watched every game with me and loved to talk about it with his friends and here, he has few kids that he can talk to about the Van Bommel dive or the Ronaldo goal or is Man U going to catch Chelsea. He (and I) are on edge waiting for the Barcelona - Benfica game this Wednesday but his soccer playing teammates are looking forward to the NCAA final tonight or the start of the baseball season this week.

Bottom line for me, is that it is not as good as some fans make it seem but it is not as bad as the article makes it seem.
 

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numerodix said:
And that the kids don't watch it on tv, is because it's not on tv? Or given marginal coverage?
It's not given much coverage here in the USA. I don't even play soccer at my high school, but I know more about the game than the kids on the soccer team.
 

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numerodix said:
And that the kids don't watch it on tv, is because it's not on tv? Or given marginal coverage?
It's a matter of coverage... even culture. There is no shortage of football on television these days, but the mainstream news and sports media dedicates very little attention to football. You almost get the sense that most people consider football a sport you only play but not follow or watch.
 

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Just look at hockey its a great sport many US cities have NHL teams but no one gives a shit about it in the media its treated like a 5th sport hell even Nascar gets more coverage now. For me it doesnt really matter what the majority says about the sport because as long as i get FSC or Gol TV i get my soccer coverage and ESPN can go shove baseball up the public's arse.
 

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Magic said:
Yea, I've had teachers at my school tell me that :googly:

I havent

i live in a Catholic, republican area, and also one of the largest soccer playing areas in the country.

Soccer? Sport of Communists? Well, it was popularized in the last 1800's in an attempt to keep factory workers from turning Marxist in the UK.

But to say that the game today is communist in nature is absurd. Especially with the intense amount of money in it today.

Soccer is not marketable in the US, theres no bling, no big bucks in it, so kids wont care.

Yea, its a niche sport in the US, but it is growing I think.
 

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ImmerWerder said:
Soccer? Sport of Communists? Well, it was popularized in the last 1800's in an attempt to keep factory workers from turning Marxist in the UK.

But to say that the game today is communist in nature is absurd. Especially with the intense amount of money in it today.
If anything the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are all communist sports because they are using a communist system called the "salary cap". But whatever... some of these idiots who call soccer a girl or communist sport are a bunch of idiots who cant last 15 minutes in a real match they dont know nothing about the passion of the sport and think the Super Bowl is actually bigger then the World Cup :rolleyes:
 

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Tim said:
It's a matter of coverage... even culture. There is no shortage of football on television these days, but the mainstream news and sports media dedicates very little attention to football. You almost get the sense that most people consider football a sport you only play but not follow or watch.
True. I get more football in tv in the USA that I got in Spain but the news coverage or the "sports media" coverage is zero. Ladies golf gets more billing on the news that football ever does.

With the WC around the corner, you start to get a little more, yesterday for example, in the middle of ESPN sports Center, the Joga Bonito commercial with Ronaldinho was played three times.
 

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I agree, I find I can get plenty of games but no 'media'. ESPN shows Champions League, FSC has some of the big leagues (no La Liga unfortunately) and now Gol TV is coming along and I think Setanta can be got over here too. The closest thing we have to media coverage of the sport is actually on FSC, with the Fox Sports World Report, which is good, but not enough IMO. I will be watching Sports Center after the Champions League final though just to see if they give it an ounce of coverage. However, ESPN and ABC are showing the World Cup, so I imagine that will get some Sports Center coverage at least.

HajdukSplit said:
well today I watched the Reds vs. Cubs over the Champions League :)
:irritate:
 

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good read

well i've been playing soccer for 10 years. from when i was 6 in the first grade at a local club all the way to now playing on my highschool team. so i'm living proof that not everyone gives up.

great article, was a good read
 

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This article is so outdated its not even funny. The days of soccer moms running teams and trying to teach their kids the game from a book is long gone. The influx of European coaches and new MLS programs has increased the technical aspects of the game. Today all coaches are required to be licensed to coach the game at all levels. What once could be described as mass ball where 22 kids chased the ball around the pitch are long gone.

While I can only speak from the Northeast the change in Soccer has been immense, while I have been coaching the game for the last 20 years. Here are just a few of the changes. Ive noticed in the last 10 years.

My U-8 team of just 10 years ago never watched a game on TV nor could they, as there wasn’t any, so they never talked about it. When the Metros did get on TV I would have to force them with extra laps to get them to watch the game and talk about it. Today My new U-8 team would start Mondays Practice talking about Ruiz’s Bicycle kick, and all wanting to learn how to do it.

10 years ago my U-8 team had to look forward to a U-14 career before going on to high school playing there and that was it. Yet today there are more U-15 to U-18 teams than most leagues can handle. The growth at those age groups has been so significant it has caused a major dilemma in finding enough pitches and Refs. to accommodate them. The competitive nature of the high school game has caused most high school coaches to keep their players playing together in the spring. I cant tell you what is in store for my new U-8 team in the future but at this rate they will have a hard time finding a place to play. Not because of the lack of interest, but because of the huge demand to play.

IM not sure what people expected when the MLS started but you can’t turn a switch on and expect a whole nation to embrace something new. It takes time and from what I see of the new 8-year-olds they are watching and paying attention.

The main stream media will never embrace a sport that doesn’t promote the ability to return revenue in commercials. While they serve the masters of the other sports that create most of their revenue Soccer will always take a back seat. Yet we can still get the soccer fix from our local media guides with shows that appear on MSG Metro Weekly report and MLS weekly.
 

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soccer is getitng big here

on my campus we are forcing ourselves onto the people, we are taking up at least 2 pitches a night, forcing baseball, ultimate frisby and football off the fields

we play everyday and i think its growing, during CL games, the lil bar/restaurant on campus with big screens is loaded with us, they call us soccer freaks, we turn every tv (about 15 of them) onto setanta and espn, and even make them drop the plat big screen so the whole bar sees the game, and we scream and cheer...

give it more time...espn will adapt soon....
 

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Computers ruin the future of American athletes, this think makes for lazy ass kids and kids who talk to much trash but in life cant play worth a shit
 

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PAULMAY said:
My U-8 team of just 10 years ago never watched a game on TV nor could they, as there wasn’t any, so they never talked about it.
Its been three years since I left Madrid:eekani: and I have yet to hear any of the kids that I coach hear talk about this.
 

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Soccer in the US can only survive as a niche sport nothing really more than that. I see some problems with soccer in the US which i doubt they could ever overcome.

1) MLS- Although i like MLS the main problem with it is that it's not the best soccer league in the world. In the US we're spoiled with the best Baseball, Football, Basketball, Hockey, Racing leagues in the world. In the US when a team wins the "world championship" it really is the world champion. Why pay money for average soccer at best, when you can go watch the worlds best athletes in another sport elsewhere? America has that captialist we have to have the best, we have to be #1 type culture. And as long as MLS is just a feeder league for the US national team and nothing more. You can't expect the US to go wild watching average soccer weekly on TV.

2) No marketable star's, No TV marketing- All the major networks don't cover any international club soccer. As they should i doubt CL soccer will beat a the Pro-Bowling St. Louis open in any US ratings fight. So you don't hear about Ronaldinho and all the stars don't get any coverage at all except for a few months ever four years. NBA, NHL, NHL, NFL, Nascar etc all market starpower and are easily seen on TV. Their is no star power marketing here at all.

3) Culture- Lets face facts the kid from Gumbo Alabama most likely wants to play football. The kid from the inner cities wants to go become a basketball star. The kid in cold weather climate dreams about hockey. The kid St. Louis wants to go play baseball. The US sports culture is so deeply inbedded in this society i doubt it can be changed much. These traditions have been going on for more than a century. And this argument that more immigrants are coming here wanting to watch soccer is another bogus argument. Didn't they say the same thing about Italian immigrants. Those people now watch baseball, football everything but soccer. When these immigrants assimilate they even assimilate US sporting taste. Hispanics, Italians or any other immigrant from a soccer crazy country would probably rather watch an NFL game than any soccer game.

4) Gambling- I know its stupid but believe me gambling helps out sports more than you would ever believe. People love football why because its a great sport to gamble and people love fantasy football. Gambling, fantasy plays and Sports go hand and hand. Why do you think people love the NCAA tournament? Those brackets are great gambling, office pool stuff. In the US in every major paper you'll always see a betting line for every sport. I've yet to one betting line on an MLS game. I've seen a few WC lines but nothing else. Gambling as much as people would hate to admit it here drives so many sports here. I wonder if Vegas even has MLS lines? Anyone know that?


Its no shame being a niche sport in the US. We have several soccer channels available to us where we can enjoy live action. Soccer's a beautiful game but i would take a hockey or football game over any club football events.
 

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barça said:
Its been three years since I left Madrid:eekani: and I have yet to hear any of the kids that I coach hear talk about this.
Do you coach the 8 year olds or still the highschool kids? as My older kids dont. They never had soccer on TV as much as these kids do. their parents never had it on the telly so they never grew up watching it.

There is one sure way to find out what Im saying is true. Just go down io an 8 year old practice and see all the football jerseys on and Boots. You no longer see the diadora $12 boot or baseball/ American football ferseys. Most of the kids are wanting the Beckham boot or the Full 90. AC milan and Barca Jerseys. Though for the life of me I cant understand why they wear the Barca Jersey. :)

When you Market soccer products here rivals Sammy sosa bats or baseball signed Gloves then you know the sport has a strong foothold.
 
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