The Universal Notebook: Confessions of a (recovering) soccer dad
Our daughter Tess played soccer from the time she was a little girl until she got to college.
Prior to her taking up the sport, I had little or no interest in the game. Then we lived the devoted lives of soccer moms and dads through travel team to premier and high school varsity soccer. It became my passion. Tess hasn’t played soccer for five years now, and watching the World Cup I remembered why I’m not really interested in the beautiful game anymore.
Like hockey, soccer suffers from too much action with too little production. It is a game of frustration. World Cup matches on several occasions went to penalty kicks, meaning there had been 120 minutes of action without a single goal being scored.
When that happens, there's an entirely different game, in which players take turns lining up and taking point-blank shots on the goalie. I know a lot of people find baseball boring, too, but at least in a pitcher’s duel they don’t end up deciding the game by playing home run derby.
The most memorable moment of the Brazil World Cup was when a buck-toothed pathological biter from Uruguay bit into an opponent’s shoulder for no apparent reason. Frustration will do that.
At least when the player went down writhing in pain he was not acting, which is another of the sad and sorry traditions of soccer the world over. FIFA could get rid of the floppers via a simple rule change: If a player goes down and has to be attended to, they cannot return to the game.
We Americans call the world’s most popular sport soccer. Everywhere else in the world it’s football. What we call football should probably be called tackle or airball. There’s not much foot involved.
You keep hearing that soccer hasn’t really caught on in this country, but more American boys and girls play youth soccer (3 million) than play Little League baseball and softball (2.6 million). And this year more television viewers watched the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina (26.5 million) than watched the deciding games of the World Series (19.2 million) and the NBA Finals (18 million). Football, the athletic equivalent of war, remains king, however, the Super Bowl (111 million) being the most watched sporting event of all times.
Noting that about five times as many American fans watched the Super Bowl as watched Team USA lose to Belgium in the World Cup. The Week, my new favorite magazine, asked readers to suggest in seven words or less how they would “change soccer’s rules to make the game more appealing to Americans.” My first thought was “get rid of the offside rule.”
Offside calls have always annoyed me. Offensive players are not allowed to be ahead of defenders when the ball is passed to them in the offensive half of the field. That’s like penalizing a wide receiver for beating a defensive back downfield or a basketball player for executing a fast break. What soccer needs to be more appealing to goal-oriented Americans is more goals. The offsides rule seems calculated to do just the opposite.
But if you really want more Americans to watch soccer, the obvious rule fix is get rid of the goalie. Seriously. Goalies prevent goals. I’m not just advocating eliminating the goalie, I’m suggesting they replace the barn-door-size goal with something closer in size to a lacrosse goal or even the pop-up Pugg goals used in practice.
Defenders would still defend, but no one would be allowed to touch the ball with hands. Smaller open nets would increase scoring and players could perfect the crowd-pleasing skills of long-range attacks, the soccer equivalents of home runs, long bombs and three-point shots.
Over the years, we traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars so Tess could play soccer. We went to tournaments from New Jersey to Vermont. Her premier team even took a trip to England. We paid annual dues. We bought $100 cleats at least twice a year. We shoveled snow off fields in April and baked under August suns. We happily sat on sidelines in folding canvas chairs watching young girls race back and forth, rarely scoring, but always trying. I miss that now.
I kept watching high school soccer for a year or two after Tess graduated, but without kin in the game I found I lost interest rapidly. I still enjoy watching other people’s kids play baseball, the sport of my youth, but I have reverted to the soccer-is-boring prejudice of my past. It turns out I was never really crazy about soccer at all, I just loved watching my daughter play.