I’ve been watching some soccer lately. I do that on occasion, like when I’m at the gym and flipping around the channels while I’m on the Stair Master. I like sports. Soccer is a sport. I’m told it’s the most popular sport in the world, and that appears to be true. Fans paint their faces and act nutty. Sometimes, they kill each other. Sometimes, they even kill the players. The word “hooligan” is used almost exclusively for soccer fans these days. I like that word, so I should like soccer, I guess. But, I don’t.
I know it’s fashionable for Americans to say they hate soccer. I don’t hate it. I just don’t get it. If I had grown up playing it, that would be different. Where I was raised, we would have been more likely to play that Afghan goat carcass polo game than soccer. I also know why kids like it (soccer, not that goat game). It’s a bunch of running around and kicking things. I would have liked doing that.
I also don’t dislike the foreign-ness of it. I’d watch a buzkashi match. In the early days of ESPN, it didn’t show any real sports, just stuff like snooker and badminton. It did, however, have what was probably the exclusively North American right to Australian Rules Football. I used to watch that and enjoy it. It’s a hybrid of soccer, American football, rugby and a bar fight. I came to believe that “Australian Rules” means no rules at all. But, it’s not soccer–not even close.
If you’re anything like me–and you probably aren’t–you don’t much about soccer. Watch a little, and you’ll pick up the basics. Here are a few things I know about soccer:
- I’ve tried to learn the rules, such as they are. You can’t use your hands–that’s pretty clear. Your head is okay. We don’t like people using their heads to strike things in American sports, but it’s okay in soccer. I guess the ball isn’t very hard. Americans prefer sports where the things hit your head–football, boxing, MMA and baseball to name just a few.
- Matches (not “games”) are divided into halves, each roughly 4 hours long or so it seems. The clock never stops. Some games are called “friendlies.” Those don’t count. A friendly is like an exhibition game, I guess.
- You don’t play on a “team.” You’re on a “side.”
- They have offsides, which I don’t understand at all. It happens sometimes, but I never see it coming. Often, I think I see it, but I’m wrong. When it happens, a guy holds up a flag like at a NASCAR race.
- Soccer is played on a field, except it’s called a “pitch.” Why? I don’t know. It’s a big field. BIG. On TV, it looks about 500 yards long. I’m sure it’s not, but that’s how it looks. The players look like ants. Maybe the pitch isn’t that big, but the players are tiny. It’s hard to tell.
- I think there are eleven players on each side. Sometimes, it looks like there are 200 players on the pitch. Other times, I think there are only about 5. I’m sure it’s an optical illusion caused by television. I’m not sure what their positions are, except the goalkeeper. I also don’t know what they are supposed to be doing, other than kicking the ball around. Obviously, I know that they want to kick it into the goal, but most of the action takes place far away from the goal.
- They have referees, but I don’t know what they do. If you do something wrong, they whip out a Yellow Card, which is kind of silly, but no more silly than throwing a yellow flag, I guess. A Yellow Card means you’re in trouble. They call it “misconduct,” a polite way of saying you play like a complete bastard. You’ve might tripped someone or spit on them or even killed them (not out of the question in soccer). Something bad happened, for sure. A Red Card is BIG trouble. I think it means you’re ejected. Maybe they throw you to the hooligans.
- There aren’t a lot of goals made. Most Americans complain about the lack of scoring in soccer. That doesn’t really bother me. Let’s face it, in football (by the way, I KNOW that every other country calls soccer “football” or even “futbol.” I don’t care.), there aren’t that many scores, either. It’s just that, as Americans, we were clever enough to count each score 3 or 6 points to make it seem more action-packed. My problem is that I never know when they are close to scoring. Fans will be cheering wildly and I’ll think there is no chance of anything happening. Maybe they’re cheering about something other than scoring. Possibly, there’s been a fire set in the stands.
- I think they run plays in soccer, but they might not. Occasionally, it seems that the players are working in some type of coordinated effort to get the ball past midfield. Near the goal, it’s bedlam. Eventually, someone will actually kick the ball toward the goal, but it’s rarely successful.
- I’m never quite sure if I’m seeing good plays or not. Someone will post on Twitter something like: Egbert cocked up the play with that flick header. Barmpot!#DIEMANU. I will have been watching the same match but see none of that.
- The exception to the paucity of scoring is the penalty kick. A player gets to kick the ball at the goal with the goal keeper standing there trying to block it. I don’t know when or why they get these kicks, but it has something to do with the Yellow Card business.
- Like a lot of European-ish sports, gentlemanly play and sportsmanship ought to be important. Then again, maybe they aren’t. Soccer hooligans certainly don’t follow any such rules what will all the burning and killing that accompanies many matches. No insult is too politically incorrect nor is violence necessarily frowned upon.
- Soccer broadcasters are good. They are very into it. ESPN has a guy who sounds the Lucky Charms leprechaun. He’s entertaining.
Soccer uses a ball and keeps score. That makes it a sport by my definition. The players are certainly athletic, running madly about the pitch. The games are competitive, and the fans are insane. It has all the elements of something I’d like, but I just can’t get there. I’ve thought about it, and I have a few ideas about spicing it up.
What could soccer do to hold my interest? Here are a few of my thoughts:
- Let them use their hands. Hell, let them throw the ball to each other but not backwards, only down field.
- Put in some real defense. If a player has the ball, let the defender knock him down.
- Let them pick up the ball and run with it. With that many players on the field, it’s going to be tough to get very far anyway.
- Make the goal bigger. I mean REALLY bigger, like the entire width of the field. Oh, and get rid of the goal keeper.
- Instead of just running around willy-nilly, give each team 3 or 4 shots at moving the ball toward the goal. Let’s say that you can keep the ball if you can move it 30 or so feet. If you can’t score, you can just give the ball to the other team.
- Instead of the odd random markings on the pitch, maybe you could mark it off in a grid to keep track of team’s progress.
- Limit the kicking of the ball. Honestly, 99% of it doesn’t accomplishment much anyway. Maybe you can keep the old goal to kick the ball into, but make it count less than running the ball across the goal line.
- Rethink the ball itself. Instead of round, it could be kind of oblong. That would discourage all the kicking and make carrying it easier.
- You might want to change the uniforms to provide a little more protection. Instead of shorts, I’m thinking odd, tight knee pants with padding in them. Maybe a helmet of some kind, too. If you really want to rev it up, let the players put padding on their shoulders to wallop the hell out of their opponents.
With these few little tweaks, I think I’d watch. They could put games on TV on the weekends–Sunday would be good. Monday night, too. I think it would work.
If you’re a soccer lover, you’ve read this and are poised to rebuke me with the beauty of the game. Don’t bother. This lad sums up your views perfectly: