Monday, June 4, 2007

The Beautiful Game

Don't lump me in with those guys who dismiss soccer out of hand. I've tried to get into soccer. I really have. I've been to several MLS games. I've watched EPL on Saturday mornings. I've read stuff all over the web trying to figure out what, exactly, I'm missing, but it still hasn't clicked with me, nor at this point do I think it ever will. I am resigned, I have decided, to be one of the millions who get mildly exuberant about the World Cup every four years, and then happily forget about it just as some Eurotrash guy hoists something shiny over his head.

At times I feel bad about this because, lip service to nonconformity aside, if billions of people think something is cool, it probably is pretty cool. Then I come across something like this, from That's On Point's recap of the USA-China friendly this past weekend:

The absolute apex of this came in the 32nd minute, in perhaps the best sequence I've seen by the USMNT in nearly two decades of watching it. It began with a weighted ball up by Michael Bradley deep in his own half to Sasha Kljestan, who ran it down right on the touchline. Kljestan found his Chivas USA teammate Ante Razov with a looping cross to the left penalty area. Razov could have volleyed on the China net, but instead headed to an on-rushing Clint Dempsey, who in turn flicked a header to a rampaging DaMarcus Beasley.

The Beaz threaded a pass back to Razov on the left side of the area...too bad his shot was blocked by China keeper Chen Dong . . . it's a definite shame that Razov didn't score since it won't get the YouTube immortality.

I don't quote that in order to make some lazy joke about how soccer is boring, or low scoring, or what have you (again, billions and billions can't be wrong, right?), but it strikes me that soccer is the only sport in which the most interesting, exciting, or best-executed events routinely fail to occur in the course of accomplishing the game's object (i.e. putting the ball in the net).

We can disagree about home runs vs. small ball, but no matter what you prefer, we're praising strategies and events which result in runs. No one would ever says the "best sequence" they'd seen in twenty years was a fly ball that died on the warning track or a failed suicide squeeze. No matter how great the rebound, the outlet pass, and the pre-shot jukes and jives, no one ever stood up and cheered when Dominique missed a dunk or Bird bricked a jumper. No matter how great the previous 70 yards of the drive were, Joe Montana's legend would be diminished tremendously if Super Bowl XXIII had ended with his pass to John Taylor getting knocked down instead of caught. Do we praise defensive plays? Absolutely. But ToP's blurb about the US-China friendly wasn't about how great a play the keeper made. It was about an 80% beautifully-executed sequence that ended in failure.

I don't begrudge soccer fans their love of the Beautiful Game. I realize that I am and always will be in the minority, if not in this country than at least in the world, in not caring much for soccer. All I can say, however, is that if the best moment of USA soccer an expert like ToP can point to in twenty years resulted in a blocked goal, maybe I'm really not missing anything at all.

UPDATE: An email from ToP's Mike Cardillo addresses my failure to "get" soccer better than anything I've come across before. Mike writes:
I don't really need to get into a lengthy debate about the merits of a non-goal. The thing with soccer is, in a lot of ways it is art. There is really no limit to what the 11 v. 11 on the field can do at any time. Creativity, vision, panache, what have you. There is a reason why great footballers are called geniuses.

In baseball, on any given play there are two results -- an out or not. Of course within that dynamic any number of things can happen, but over the course of time it's pretty much the same thing over and over again, with an occasional triple play thrown in. For a quick example, take a comparison between Ronaldinho and Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod can jack say, 50 home runs and really the only difference is length of the homer and where it landed. Ronaldinho can score 20 goals in the Spanish league each one from a different place, with a different syle of strike.

I guess in the end its a matter or taste. Science vs. art.

I'm not really inclined to concede that baseball is "pretty much the same thing over and over again," but I think he's right about it being science to soccer's art. While there is some amount of creativity involved in a pitcher setting up a hitter, baseball really is a game of geometry and physics with far less room for the improvisation of soccer. I still can't say I understand or appreciate that improvisation enough to make me a soccer fan, but I feel less guilty about that now than I did before reading and thinking about Mike's email. I don't get opera either, and many people don't get jazz, and that's just the way the world works.

Hey look: soccer guys and non-soccer guys being civil to each other. What a concept.