Some Theoretical Problems on Soccer in the USA

When people have too much energy, too much time and too much political paranoia, they tend to see conspiracies around every corner.   This is not limited to military threats or political machinations, but extends to all walks of life.  Globally, the most popular sport is the game of soccer.  Within the United States of America, soccer lags far behind basketball, baseball and American football in popularity.  So whether out of intellectual laziness or misguided patriotism, there comes the call to defend the homeland against the creeping popularity of this alien sport.

Exhibit 1: Stephen Moore on Soccer- Mom Hell in the National Review:

After watching the first two soccer games of my six-year-old son, Justin, this spring, I finally understand why Europeans riot at soccer matches. For the same reason inmates riot in prisons: sheer boredom.

There is no surer sign of the decline of America's culture than the craze over this awful European sport. Drive past a park or a schoolyard on a clear spring afternoon and you're likely to witness a depressingly unpatriotic sight: the baseball diamond lies empty and crab grass grows in the infield, while herds of American children dressed in preposterous polyester uniforms run around kicking a white and black ball in no particular direction and to no apparent end.

Soccer at any level -- from six-and-under peewee leagues to the pros -- is about as scintillating as ninety minutes of Court TV. Soccer is reminiscent of ACC college basketball games in the pre - shot-clock era when halftime scores were in the single digits: North Carolina 9, Virginia 7. (What is it they used to say about Dean Smith? The only man who ever held Michael Jordan to less than 20 points a game.)

Soccer is the least offensive-minded game ever invented. Last year the goalie on Justin's team recorded five straight shutouts. This seemed to me to be an awesome athletic triumph, until it dawned on me that there had been no shots on goal that I could recall. By the end of the season our superstar goalie began to lie in the grass in front of the net and read comic books during the games.

During the second period of one game last year a Good Humor truck drove by the park. On hearing the tinkling of the bells half our players awoke from their slumber and scrambled from the playing field in joyous pursuit. Meanwhile, on the field, the game relentlessly continued. For more than five minutes our opponents commanded the equivalent of a five-man power-play advantage and they still couldn't score.

No other activity in life requires so much effort for so little reward. Ninety-nine per cent of the action has virtually no bearing on the outcome of the game. Herein may lie the explanation for why so many of my government-bureaucrat neighbors in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have a love affair with soccer.

In soccer, every mother's child is above average. There's no shame in losing and a tie is the likely outcome. The game's egalitarian philosophy extends to the absurdity of giving every kid a trophy at the end of the season.

I am convinced that the ordeal of soccer teaches our kids all the wrong lessons in life. Soccer is the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports -- which may explain why socialist nations dominate in the World Cup. The purpose of a capitalist economy is to produce the maximum output for the least amount of exertion. Soccer requires huge volumes of effort but produces no output.

What makes peewee soccer particularly insidious is that boys and girls play together. At this level, the sport has become a giant social experiment imposed upon us by the same geniuses who have put women in combat. No one seems to care much that co-ed soccer is doing irreparable harm to the psyche of America's little boys.

  At this pre-puberty state of life girls tower over boys and typically have better coordination. Last year the Pelé of my son's league was a kindergartner named Kate Lynn. During one game, Kate Lynn repeatedly stampeded over Justin. After the third knockdown, I quietly pulled him aside and advised: ``Remember that rule about never hitting a girl? Let's suspend that for the next forty minutes.'' But he never did, because she was likely to hit back.

If the girls are bad, the moms are worse. They berate the referees. Taunt opposing players. Nag the coach unmercifully to put their no-talent kid back in. One woman paced the sidelines through an entire game in a wild-eyed frenzy, screaming: ``Jeffrey, Jeffrey, Jeffrey . . .'' My kingdom for a muzzle. Once the game had mercifully ended she smothered him with hugs while cooing: ``Oh, Jeffrey, you are soooo good at soccer.'' Take my word for it, Newt, the Republican Party is much better off without these women. If she's in, I'm out.

During games, I usually stand mute on the sidelines reading the newspaper. My refusal to feign interest is a source of great irritation for the more fanatical soccer moms. They now whisper disapprovingly among themselves: ``Oh, that's Justin's dad. He has an attitude problem.'' They regard my lack of enthusiasm as a form of child abuse. Next they'll be notifying the child-welfare league about me.

So the issue of the day is whether we Americans will muster the forces to take back our culture from the un-American soccer enthusiasts. We need to channel our kids' energies into more productive activities: baseball, football, tennis, MTV -- even smoking would be an improvement.

Soccer is draining America of the next generation's talent in the sports that really matter. Charles Barkley recently warned that within the next three Olympics the Europeans will be competitive with the U.S. Dream Team. When Sweden beats our top stars in basketball, Americans will assuredly awaken from their slumber. But by then it will be too late.

Exhibit 2:  John Derbyshire, The Longest, Awfulest Game, The National Review

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— mosty 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!

Exhibit 3:  Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Playing Right Wing,  The American Prospect

In the wee hours of last Monday morning, the American soccer team claimed its biggest World Cup victory ever, defeating Mexico 2-0 in a second round match in Jeonju, South Korea. But walking through the streets of Washington DC, you wouldn't have known it. Apart from a few forlorn looking Latino men standing with their heads bowed at the bus stop, evidence of this historic triumph was nowhere to be found. In Dakar, thousands of Senegalese had celebrated in the streets when their team beat Sweden in a similar round-of-16 upset; and in London hundreds of England supporters jumped into fountains in Trafalgar Square to celebrate their shutout victory over Denmark. But despite the fact that their team had just enjoyed a similar triumph, most Americans were still asleep.

Though Nielsen Media Ratings indicate that viewership is on the rise, professional soccer ratings -- even during the World Cup -- still pale in comparison to other sports, golf included. Despite the three million children who played in youth soccer leagues in 2000-2001, the sport has yet to fully catch on. This fact continues to encourage those who care little for the "beautiful game," and has even revived a latent soccer-bashing political right in the United States.

Perhaps the first evidence of conservatives' aversion to soccer appeared during the last World Cup in 1998, when denunciations of bourgeois, liberal, Clinton-supporting soccer moms graced the pages of National Review. Tirades against the inevitable hooliganism of the game were entertained in the right-wing press as well. Taken together, these seemingly divergent criticisms from soccer-bashers gave rise to the peculiar and ironic phenomenon of assigning a political label to what is perhaps the only sport known to have united fascists and communists, bosses and workers, and millionaires and slum-dwellers behind their respective national teams.

Conservative magazines such as National Review and The Weekly Standard would have us believe that by remaining indifferent to soccer, Americans are heroically resisting the onslaught of a sport that is "for bureaucrats, socialists and overbearing mothers." As Stephen Moore wrote in National Review in 1998, "I am convinced that the ordeal of soccer teaches our kids all the wrong lessons in life. Soccer is the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports -- which may explain why socialist nations dominate the World Cup."

This type of analysis may be lent a superficial plausibility because of the well-known political gulf between the U.S. and Europe. Thus, The Financial Times recently attributed the new transatlantic divide to Bush's inability to communicate with European leaders when it comes to sports, namely soccer. But lo and behold, even the famously disinterested President Bush called U.S. coach Bruce Arena and the team just hours before they faced Mexico, telling a surprised squad, "The country is really proud of the team... A lot of people that don't know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you."

Indeed, Moore must be eating his words as his United States advance to the quarterfinals against those commie Germans, surrounded by other perennial reds like the South Koreans, the Spanish, and the Brits. In fact, to hear the right tell it, it would seem that the leader of the capitalist world has betrayed its values by engaging in a sport that -- like hockey or football -- could, god forbid, end in a tie. According to Moore's theory, "The purpose of a capitalist economy is to produce the maximum output for the least amount of exertion. Soccer requires huge volumes of effort but produces no output." His fellow National Review soccer-hater John Derbyshire has echoed this sentiment, arguing that "The very inconclusiveness of soccer is, I suspect, what has made it the pet sport of the repulsive bobos ... The game is, in their eyes, relatively untainted by that knuckle-dragging, masculine competitiveness that disfigures the more prominent American sports."

Fortunately, another National Review writer, Ben Domenech, has exposed the idiocy of Derbyshire's rant, explaining that in most parts of the globe the game is not the polite domain of the minivan-driving soccer moms Moore and Derbyshire so despise. "Soccer is a rough, violent, populist game, with none of the traits liberal elites might find attractive. The games are fast, intense, rough-and-tumble contests of speed, skill, and bravado waged on cracked asphalt," writes Domenech. But nevertheless, the soccer-basher arguments resurfaced last week when Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard, penned a critique of the soccer fans who every four years attempt to "chastise and convert the non-believers...[and] force the soccer agnostics to submit."

In the end, of course, the success of the US team may make the case for soccer in this country all by itself. Certainly it has fueled the growing interest of President Bush and the millions of others Americans who tuned in at 2:30 a.m. Monday to watch the US beat Mexico on ESPN and the Spanish-language channel Univision. The BBC estimates that combined viewer totals from Monday's game might surpass three million and set an all-time record for a soccer television audience in the United States, despite the fact that soccer games are not conducive to the lucrative advertising that drives most American network sportscasts. This Friday's match against Germany is likely to garner even higher ratings. And then, just maybe, Derbyshire, Last and the anti-soccer crowd might finally realize that their mom and apple-pie crusade against the beautiful game could ultimately backfire or, even worse, be labeled un-American.

These are highly theoretical arguments, much about nothing of course.  We will now cite some survey data from the 2003 MARS study.  This is a mail survey of 21,106 adults in the USA conducted during the first quarter of 2003.  According to this study, 4.6% of the survey respondents said that they had played soccer in the past 12 months.  The next chart shows the incidences by age, gender, county size, education and household income.

Demographically, soccer players in the United States do not look like a bunch of non-English-speaking foreigners.  Among men, they are much younger.  Among women, they are college-age as well as 35-44 (more likely to be mothers).  The county size variable is usually taken to be a measure of urbanization ("A" counties are in the largest metropolitan areas, such as New York, Queens and Kings counties in New York City, Cook county in Chicago, Los Angeles county in Los Angeles), whereas "D" counties are in the hinterlands with as few as several hundred households dispersed over a large area.  These results show that there is a higher incidence of soccer playing in urban areas.  And the soccer players are better educated and more affluent.

The cited rantings against soccer refer constantly to the soccer moms, who are defined in the poem by J. Warner Ralls:

Recent years in the USA have provided a new way to designate certain active mothers.
These soccer moms are little youngish women who daily wear athletic shoes and dress.
They tool around in station wagons, pickup trucks and vans to provide rides to others.
Getting heirs and heiresses to practice and performance is a labor of love they confess.

The soccer moms became a hot political catch during the 1996 presidential election, in which this demographic group was said to be heavily pro-Clinton (see Soccer Mom Nonsense).  Within the MARS study, the projected universe contains 110 million females.  Of these, 34.7 million are parents with children under 18 years old.  Of these moms, 1.7 million of them have played soccer in the past 12 months (4.8%) (note: we grant that this is not exactly the soccer moms).  This is not a large demographic group in itself, and could not have made a dramatic impact on the election.  Rather, that 1996 election contained a huge gender gap that covered many categories and labels.  But it so happened that the soccer moms formed an appealing concept, being the amalgamation of many social issues such as "the rise of soccer as a middle-class pastime, the demanding lives of working women, the diversification of the suburbs, the popularity of the Dodge Caravan, and so on."  Whether women are soccer moms, bowling moms, super moms, welfare moms or what not, it would seem that they are less different and more common insofar as basic issues such as health, education, militarization and so on are concerned.  Therefore, much of the rantings against the soccer moms is misplaced.

(posted by Roland Soong, 7/19/2003)

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