The Universal Notebook: Soccer explains nothing

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As a distinguished freelance journalist (who happens not to have much work lately), I am free these days to watch the World Cup soccer matches, though watching television before noon goes against every fiber of my being.

As it happens, I caught the tail end of the U.S.-Slovenia game in the waiting room of the auto dealership where I was getting the oil changed in the old Subaru. What travesty.

How could the powerful Americans, who occupy a country the size of a continent, end up in a stalemate with a country most of us couldn’t locate on a map? (Hint: it’s east of Italy, south of Austria.) How? Both because the Americans didn’t wake up until the second half and a referee from Mali had visions of fouls where there were none, waving off the winning U.S. goal.

Roughly the same thing nearly happened in the U.S.-Algeria match when a referee whistled a dubious off-sides call, wiping out an American goal, one they didn’t get back until the 91st minute to stay alive in the tournament just long enough to lose to Ghana. In my brief career as a soccer fan, I have observed that refs get offsides calls wrong at least half the time, whether middle school or World Cup. That’s because officials running up and down the field are rarely in position to get a proper view when a ball is kicked forward.

Soccer is a tragically flawed human construct. As simple as it is – kick a ball into a net – it’s incredibly subjective. Fouls, offsides, out-of-bounds calls, how much stoppage time to add at the end of regulation, even whether a goal has actually been scored, depend on the selective perception and judgment of error-prone mortals.

Americans still aren’t as crazy about soccer, which the rest of the world calls football, as they are about football, basketball and baseball. And there are a lot of reasons for this.

First, as Franklin Foer explains in “How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization,” when the game did finally reach the American mainstream, “soccer came to represent the fundamental tenets of yuppie parenting,” meaning let everyone play, build self-esteem, minimize the pain of loss. Think “soccer mom.”

The major reason soccer hasn’t caught on in this country, except among the millions of kids who play it, is that it, like ice hockey, is not TV friendly. It’s non-stop action on a running clock. No time-outs. Commercials have to wait until half-time. Maybe that’s why professional soccer teams don’t wear team names on their uniforms, they wear the names of corporate sponsors.

There’s also, as in hockey, too much effort for too little production. Ninety-minute soccer games can, and frequently do, end up in 0-0 ties. Whoever first said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” must have been a soccer fan. No American sports fan believes that.

Americans want to win, and, if we don’t, we want to be able to appeal. We demand justice. Instant replay, now standard in football, basketball, and, to a lesser extent, baseball, could easily correct the egregious errors in judgment that plague soccer, but that would interrupt the flow of the Beautiful Game. Better to let the injustices stand than to destroy the spontaneity.

Even after the fact, no explanations or justifications are offered for blown calls. The motto of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) should be, paraphrasing Mary Poppins, “First of all we would like to make one thing perfectly clear: we never explain anything.”

Soccer is a frustrating sport. It demands that we live with unfairness. That’s life. Get over it. Get on with it.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.