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The Cup Underfloweth
Watching soccer is like watching chess.


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This was going to be the year. This time I was for sure going to get into World Cup soccer in a big way. All the pieces were in place. I owned a television and was paid up with the cable company. The various sports networks had hired commentators who knew the game and the teams and could help me on my way to a fuller appreciation of the sport. I’d been assured that the Americans had a team that would contend (and, no matter how much you are told otherwise, when you are watching a sporting event, it always helps to have a rooting interest). The Wall Street Journal had even commissioned Henry Kissinger to write something that would help me on my way to enlightenment.

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But things got in the way. The game between the Americans and Czech Republic came on at exactly the time when I had to wash my truck. So I missed that thrilling 3-0 rout. I did, however, manage to catch the highlights. With soccer, watching the highlights doesn’t take a lot of time. The game has that going for it, anyway.

The garden required emergency mulching right when the Americans were battling Italy to a 1-1 tie, so I missed that one, too. I gathered from the highlights and expert post-game analysis that the Italians actually scored both goals — theirs and ours — and that the officiating was suspect. The controversial calls worked to Italy’s advantage, which came as no surprise since Italian soccer has been tarnished by a scandal involving the bribery of some officials. What the Italian team gaveth, the officials tooketh away. Still, the Americans considered the tie something of a moral victory. They had played two complete games without actually scoring a goal. Their only point had come through the charity of the Italians, who probably figured they could afford it since they had the refs in their pockets. Even so, our boys were still in it. But they needed to come up big against their next opponent, the international powerhouse…Ghana.

Even though things had not gone the Americans’ way, I regretted missing those two games. I felt vaguely guilty, in fact, the way Americans are supposed to feel when it is pointed out to them that the rest of the world is in love with soccer and that they are a bunch of parochial, provincial philistines for not getting on board. Flat-earthers (the Friedman kind) tend to despise American football — too violent, militaristic, macho, etc. — and find something sublime in the international version. It is the aesthetically — even morally — superior team sport, and the average American sports fan’s indifference to soccer and the World Cup is just further proof of how unenlightened and boorish he is.

After all, Henry Kissinger is a soccer fan, and that ought to prove something.

Actually, to my thinking, it strengthens the case against soccer. Kissinger, remember, was also a fan of détente with the Soviets, which was the geopolitical equivalent of soccer, with lots of 1-1 games where you had to count on your enemy to score your goals. (The Soviets kicked the winner, for us, in Afghanistan.) Fans of American football prefer the American football approach to foreign policy. You know — long bombs, blitzes, sacks, and the rest of the NFL arsenal, with the result being something like a 51-0 annihilation of the guys in the wrong colored jerseys.

With cheerleaders, of course.

Something came up, again, so I missed the American team’s loss to Ghana. Our boys did score a goal, I learned from the highlights. Or, perhaps, that should be highlight, singular. One goal in three games.

I am one of those baseball fans who likes low scoring pitchers’ duels, but one goal in three full games of soccer … watching that strikes me as something more akin to watching chess. The people who push soccer cite the sport’s non-stop action, and I’ll give them that. But there ought to be a point to all that action. Sports are often described in martial locutions, and the ones that come to mind for soccer are “stalemate” and “trench warfare.” Who wants to watch the Brits and the Germans go at it again, the same way they did outside of Ypres?

Speaking of which, for a sport that is supposed to inspire the universalist in one’s breast, soccer certainly seems to stir up the old, primitive, nationalist juices. As an American, I like for my rivalries to resemble a clan feud rather than a struggle between sovereign states. There is more humor and fellow feeling between the Hatfields and McCoys than the Germans and the Poles. So give me an Alabama/Auburn football game any time. After the game, the drunks are much nicer.

Fans at American sporting events will, from time to time, get out of hand in their enthusiasm. They will tear down goalposts after a big college game or burn up some cars in Detroit when the Pistons win an NBA championship. But these things seem trivial compared to the kind of riots and street thuggery that often follow when soccer emotions reach a boil. The cops have busted hundreds of rioters during the World Cup matches this time around, but so far nobody has been killed, which has been known to happen. And fans have not been the only victims. Back in 1994, playing against the Americans, a Colombian goaltender unwisely deflected the ball into his own net. (Shades of the Italians against the U.S. in 2006.) The Colombian team went on to lose, 2-1, and was eliminated from the tournament. A few days later, the goalie was shot, 12 times, as he left a nightclub. The shooter is reported to have shouted “goal,” each time he fired.

Scott Norwood’s last-second kick sailed wide-right against the Giants in the Buffalo Bill’s first of four Super Bowl losses. Yet Norwood is still with us and still appears in public. So much for the way American football provokes violence.

Soccer, for all its stupefying aimlessness, just punches the buttons that cause hysteria among its fans. One disputed soccer match, back in the 60s, even led to war between two sovereign states. The “soccer war” between Honduras and El Salvador will be remembered for settling one long-running dispute, though not one between rival soccer fans. This one pitted one famous fighter plane against another. Ever since World War II, students of military aviation had argued over which was the better American fighter plane — the Navy’s Corsair or the Army Air Corp’s Mustang. The Corsair had been flown by, among others, “Pappy” Boyington, the celebrated Marine Corps ace. Chuck Yeager had flown the Mustang over Europe and proved, not for the last time, that he had the “right stuff.”

People had argued for years over which plane would prevail in a dogfight. A Honduran Corsair pilot settled it when he shot down a Mustang belonging to El Salvador’s air force.

Honduras, by the way, also won the war, which presumably avenged insults to its flag and national anthem that occurred during a soccer game in El Salvador.

And in one of this year’s World Cup matches, Germany defeated Poland, 1-0. This time, anyway, Poland kept it close.

Experts are predicting that Brazil will take the cup, and I say good for them. Let me know when it is over. I’ll be cutting the grass.

Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.



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