»  National Review

July 17, 2000

  The Longest, Awfullest Game

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One of my earliest recollections from an English childhood is of sitting with my father as he listened to the Saturday afternoon soccer game on our family radio. The voice of the commentator was clear enough — a man talking — but what was that other sound behind it? Always present, sometimes a mere murmur, rising now to a roar as the commentary became faster and more excited, now subsiding again, it rolled and seethed in a vaguely oceanic way that struck my infant fancy as dark and menacing. I actually had no idea what it was, but I felt sure it was a thing I wanted no part of. The aversion stayed with me, and I spent my formative years avoiding soccer, so far as it can be avoided in a soccer-mad country on the fringes of a soccer-crazed continent. To this day I do not understand the offside rule. Eventually I came to the United States, where — glory, hallelujah! — there is no soccer.

Well, there is some, of course. One of the hardy perennials of American newspaper rooms is the "rebirth of American soccer" story. We had it a year ago, when a U.S. team won the 1999 Women's World Cup — remember that girl in the sports bra with her well-buffed arms raised in triumph? We had it in 1996 with the launch of Major League Soccer, the latest attempt to organize the professional game nationwide here; and we had it in 1975 with the previous attempt, the North American Soccer League, which folded in 1984. No doubt the "rebirth" story was wheeled out in 1925 when a Scottish immigrant named Archie Stark concluded the American Soccer League season with 67 goals for Bethlehem Steel, still the world record for a pro league. Yet soccer has, as its U.S. promoters whine, "never gained public acceptance" here. Various theories are advanced to explain this.

What really needs explaining is not why Americans do not care to watch soccer, but why the rest of the world does. With the probable exception of cricket, it is the most boring game ever devised, and has been trending in the direction of utter eventlessness for several decades. One reason Archie Stark's record is still unbroken is that over the last fifty years soccer defense has developed much more rapidly than offense, so that final scores of 0-0 and "penalty shoot-outs" (where an intractably tied game is settled by having single players kick at a goal defended only by the goalie) are now routine. It is amazing, in such a busy age, that so many people are willing to spend ninety minutes watching a game that frequently has no result.

The very inconclusiveness of soccer is, I suspect, what has made it the pet sport of the repulsive bobos — David Brooks' "bourgeois bohemians." The game is, in their eyes, relatively untainted with that knuckle-dragging, masculine competitiveness that disfigures the more prominent American sports. It lacks the grunted brutalities of football, the chawing and spitting and thrust-jaw confrontations of baseball, or the in-your-face trash talk of basketball. It is, they seem to think, just a more aerobic version of croquet: a non-violent game of skill and strategy. In their soft, money-addled minds, these deluded wretches associate soccer with things "civilized" and European: with French wines and Danish pastries, with tiny, fuel-efficient cars and eighteen different varieties of coffee, with universal health care and the prohibition of handguns. How wrong-headed is all this? One hardly knows where to begin.

In the first place, soccer is a safer game to play than more popular American sports only in the way that modern boxing is safer than bare-knuckle prize-fighting. That is to say, there is less blood and fewer broken bones, but considerably more unseen injury — mostly to the brain. A study by Dutch and American researchers, published in the journal Neurology in 1998, found that professional soccer players score poorly compared with other athletes on tests of memory, planning and visual processing, as a consequence of chronic brain injury from repeatedly "heading" the ball or colliding with other players. Another study written up in Sports Medicine Digest the previous year reported degenerative changes in the cervical spine — that is, the bones and intervertebral tissues of the neck — in 61 per cent of younger soccer players, presumably from the same causes. Those soccer moms would be doing better by their children if they switched them to skydiving programs. Or to rugby, the game of my own schooldays. Rugby players break collar-bones, ribs and noses pretty regularly, but at least they come away with their brains intact. Rugby is also a more "inclusive" sport, in the sense that there is a place on the rugby field for all physiques and all levels of skill above the irredeemably uncoordinated. Old English saying: "Football [i.e. soccer] is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans. Rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen."

Talk of hooligans leads us to another reason why soccer should be banned from these United States by constitutional amendment. In those countries where it is the lead sport, it seems to attract into its following an element of the population glimpsed here only on the Jerry Springer show, or doing weed-whacker duty under armed supervision on upstate roadsides. My loathing of soccer — and indeed of hooliganism — notwithstanding, I cannot repress a shiver of national pride here, for the world leaders in soccer hooliganism are the English. The prowess of our lads was on display last month at the Euro 2000 championships in Belgium. On June 17th England beat Germany for the first time since the finals of the 1966 World Cup. (The chant of England supporters when their team plays Germany is: "Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah," to the tune of "Camptown Races.") In the streets of the small Belgian town of Charleroi, where the match was played, hundreds of English fans fought pitched battles with their German counterparts. Order was only restored by means of water cannon and mounted police charges. Scores of deported English fans were flown home in a Belgian military aircraft, handcuffed and heavily guarded. Whether Engish pre-eminence in this field is the last dying flicker of our national vitality, or the presage of some new phase of world-kicking English bumptiousness, I shall not venture to speculate.

(There is a case to be made that English soccer hooligans represent the true soul of our people — that, in fact, England is a nation of hooligans. Many of our national heroes have about them a somewhat questionable quality: Clive of India, Cecil Rhodes, Stamford Raffles. The 16th-century adventurer Sir Francis Drake is regarded as a great patriot and exemplar by all red-blooded Englishmen. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a fine sentimental poem about him, that used to be memorized by English schoolchildren, and that was set to music by Sir Charles Stanford — the sheer quantity of Sirs here shows you how respectable this man's memory is. Those at the receiving end of his "adventures," however, considered him a lawless pirate, and on the actual historical evidence it is hard to argue that they were wrong.)

American soccer fans have not yet been infected by the spirit of hooliganism. For one thing they are middle-class, the offspring of those suburban soccer moms; for another, there are not enough of them to spawn the required subgroups of ferocious drunks. (I'll admit, very grudgingly, that most soccer fans, even in England, are law-abiding.) If the game ever does take off here, though — if it seeps down into the great American underclass — be prepared for scenes that will make the disturbances following the L.A. Lakers game last month look like schoolyard scuffles. There is something about the game that makes this inevitable. Perhaps it is soccer's remarkable ability to go on for ninety minutes with nothing at all happening that causes fans to lose their reason. Or possibly — this is my private opinion — the game was brought into the world by Satan to drive the human race mad. There was actually a war fought over a soccer game once: El Salvador vs. Honduras, 1969, two thousand dead (I do not know the game score). Now I hear again that sinister seething murmur from Dad's radio set. America: be warned!