Saturday, March 21, 2009

“America’s Pure Sport”

A rebuttal to Stephen H. Webb's 'Soccer is Ruining America'

By Michael Patrick Rooney


"Soccer is a European sport because it is all about death and despair. Americans would never invent a sport where the better you get the less you score."

Oh, cheese and crackers! I do jest: beyond the recognition that many opinions are best left unspoken, certain opinions are best left deliberately unpublished in certain mediums. So here I rebuttal to an article that was sent to me, having been published on the web by the Wall Street Journal, by a man of the name Stephen H. Webb, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana (the above quotation is from his opinion piece on March 11, 2009):

The article was titled, "Soccer is Ruining America". Yes, my friends, "soccer" is ruining America… soccer. Not unrealistic state budgets equating to bankruptcy, not exorbitant executive bonuses for bailout recipients, not towering spending packages, not eight-years of regressive scientific innovation stymied by siphoned government funds and religious prudence; not market drops, unprecedented foreclosure rates, soaring unemployment, nor even excessive exploitation of steroid use in our most beloved past time; no… it is soccer that is ruining our nation. Do I jest?

Let's for the sake of argument say any of the points in Mr. Webb's article were legitimate. Let us make-believe that "soccer mimics the paradigmatic feminine experience of childbirth [speaking on account of stamina] more than the masculine business of destroying your opponent(…)". Or rather, that "feet are in need of redemption [because hands are divine]." Wait, I digress; I cannot even pretend, little lone fathom the validity of these arguments in a case against soccer. They're unintelligent, ignorant and unintelligible and I wonder more as to why the Wall Street Journal published such trite hogwash than why it was written. I know why it was written; everybody has an opinion.

And I'm left here wondering if indeed the author has ever himself played soccer? Moreover, I'm left flustered by the glaringly obvious truth that the author has, in all likelihood, never removed his nose once from those books he reads at his daughter's games (great supportive parenting, by the way) to take a moment to understand the sport, and his lack of research supporting his "opinion" is appalling, unprofessional and a mockery to journalism.

I will not spend this entire article augmenting Mr. Webb's opinion by merely reveling (thru mockery) in his unfounded "four points", nor by focusing on his argument alone; I have my own opinion of soccer that will undoubtedly unfold throughout this frustrated counter-argument, which, despite my having given myself a three day cool-down period, still adamantly persists.

Throughout the article, Mr. Webb refers to soccer as "easy to play", insinuates that it is skill-less, soft and results in "little advantage". Ah yes, a sport that requires the veritable stamina of a gazelle; where a premier player (at any level) will average nearly a marathon's worth of running throughout the course of a 90-minute match, while battling players with limited use of the body, all the while attempting to control a light-weight ball with precision footwork and pinpoint accuracy to find seams in stringent defenses to create an opportunity to score is obviously soft, easy and devoid of skill. I mean, it even sounds easy when you read it, doesn't it?

Mr. Webb, I implore you to keep your nose in the books and your fingers off of the keyboard if this is the type of ignorance you're going to display publicly. I have played soccer; in fact, I had spent nearly my entire youth competing in organized sports, including: football (4 years), basketball (10 years), baseball (10 years), swimming (2 years) and soccer (8 years) and the only sport I ever felt humbled by was, indeed, soccer. Why? Because it requires the most talent. Yes, football requires a physical aptitude that borders barbarian and an ability to execute perfectly each down and see circumnavigably thru a vision-restrictive helmet. Indeed, baseball requires refined vision and attentive and composed focus, as well as uncanny reflexes and a certain bravery to stand before an unpredictable hardball. Swimming is a rigorous exercise that not all people are built for and basketball is potentially the roughest, most-overall demanding sport that I've ever played… with my hands. However, soccer is the most difficult sport I have ever played, period. Beyond the physical stress of running and the mental levelheadedness required to refrain from shoving a smothering opponent's face into the grass; the inability to use the hands (which you tout so spiritually in your article) is the factor which makes soccer the most skillful of all the sports.

Anyone with hands can use them to throw a ball, Mr. Webb. Anyone with enough size and strength can be taught to shuffle sideways and use their hands to block a charging defender. Anyone with the physical aptitude can swing a bat, lay-up a basketball or glide thru the water; but it is the inability to use that which we use precisely each day that makes soccer so demanding. Because feet are slumbering and the majority of people never develop the grace required to dribble a ball and accurately slice defenses thru mental awareness and up-field vision simultaneously. The human body is not innately programmed to repetitively bounce a ball off of the foot, nor foot fake and then explode aggressively around a defender by playing the ball behind his plant foot in a sporting, Houdini-esque display of physical ability and uncanny skill. Oh, all the while keep their eyes up-field for the lay-up to a b-lining striker. It is a skill most people never develop and your article leads me to believe that you are among that majority.

Beyond the skill-factor of soccer; it remains the "World's Game". How arrogant are you to assume that because it is an imported sport, that it must automatically be inferior to "homegrown" athletics, which are hardly homegrown at all because they're each derivatives of earlier, Eastern sports. Baseball is a revised version of cricket, football is a deliberate form of rugby, and basketball, well… regardless of earlier forms of the sport, basketball remains the most original of American-developed sports. You refer to soccer in your article as a European export, which only exudes your ignorance more; for while current rule associations are European in nature, the sport itself has origins in Asian empires, such as China and Japan as much as it does in ancient Greek and Roman athletics. You say America would never invent a sport where the better you get the less you score? Baseball scores deflate drastically at higher levels of competition and often remain down around a 3 run average, per team, per game in "The Show". Your argument is invalid.

You further perpetuate your argument against soccer by referring to penalty shootouts as "anti-climatic". This doesn't stand to reason, especially with the rest of this point, because you apply an argument by generalization to say that "most games end, in sudden death"; when in association rules football (modern-day soccer), unless the game is a knock-out game for a tournament then it is custom for it to end in a draw. So the truer statement would be: "rarely do games end in sudden death" and those which did would be the exception; merely a fraction of a the small percentage of games which are allowed to enter a sudden death period and if you followed soccer you would know that this is because standings are allotted based on points, not wins. And anti-climatic…? Really? Is football anti-climatic? Because in effect, the NFL utilizes sudden death itself (in way more frequency than soccer) and college football uses a formula not too dissimilar from a penalty shootout. And how is equitable opportunity rife with incredible goal tending talents, matched with the ever-lingering heartbreak of hitting the post or pushing the ball wide either anti-climatic, or incapable of breaking a kid down (as you attest is the point of sports)? Eyes up, Mr. Webb; I'd say you're missing the game entirely.

We are at a crossroads in this nation as far as soccer is concerned. The debilitating blow of losing David Beckham to AC Milan will unduly draw down soccer audiences nationwide, at least for the majority of the Major League Soccer season. The sport, which had been met with some praise and excitement upon inception of the MLS, has begun to fade into the recesses of peoples' minds and is on a collision course with all the former leagues this nation attempted to support. I have been a Chicago Power and a Chicago Fire fan and it would appear that if the MLS continues down its current revenue stream (which more resembles a dry creek bed); then in the future I'll be a fan of the Chicago Who Knows!?. It is truly a tragedy too, as so many kids in this nation play in youth soccer leagues and in the heart of the nation, Chicago and Columbus (not to discount my home, Orange County and San Diego, who also widely support soccer among their populations), soccer is well supported from youth levels, to the MLS and all the way up to the U.S. National Team. And that is the only true catalyst, or albeit nowadays--saving grace, that the American populace has for soccer and its future here—the National Team. We lose all of our best players to the rich, powerful and established European leagues and clubs (not surprising considering we take all their best baseball and basketball players) because the level of competition is higher there and this hurts the MLS and soccer in America as a whole. Saddled with poor World Cup appearances, despite a growing pool of world-class talent; soccer in America now faces bankruptcy and we need the U.S. National Team to perform in South Africa in 2010 more than ever. If only to destabilize ignorant arguments like Mr. Webb's, which only threaten our push toward a greater competitiveness with the world in "the World's Game". How long shall people sit idly by with no stimulation to assist soccer in its potential strength as a popularized American sport? We are a fickle, attention-deficit society and we need a strong 2010, because America loves soccer in their hearts; but with so many other options for sports and so few international accomplishments for soccer, the question remains, 'where is the incentive to follow the sport?'

I comprehend this and I also understand that if Mr. Webb were to make a true argument against soccer in America, this would be the pragmatic starting point; for arguments made on the basis of it being a "girl's sport", "anti-climatic", skill-less, uncompetitive and foreign are just the mentality that delineates America from positive world opinion, because the argument itself is drivel. I move to not debunk America from international competition because of personal beliefs that the sport is a foreign invasion and the counter-intuitive point that it is soft and undemanding. Put down the book and watch your daughter. If not for the sake of understanding what you're talking about; then at least so your daughter actually thinks you're interested in what she's interested in and maybe even along the way, you'll learn to appreciate some of the talent the games requires.

And as far as soccer ruining America goes? Well, at least the game remains pure… free of the litany of bad press, steroids, astronomical salaries, inflated egos and perfidious city allegiances that have utterly hallowed much of the soul of our 'Big Three' (football, baseball, basketball). More closely related to collegiate sports, where not only are fans true fans, but players are actual players; soccer is, in my opinion, the little-known salvation of the soul of American sports and should we win a World Cup next year or five from now, I believe then the nation will understand just what a beautiful game it is to watch.

It is the World's Game because it requires only a ball to play. A ball and feet (I once played against a kid who was armless and very good). From the dusty fields of Africa, to the alleyways of Paris, to the beautiful, green fields along the Orange County coastline; all you need is a ball, the heart and the skill and even the poorest kid from Togo can ascend to stand arm in arm with the richest kid from London to form a defensive wall. With such an ability to be a diplomat in itself, why would we want to dispel such an amazing sport? For arrogance? For ignorance? Should it fail I attest that it is both… because once you've played the game you appreciate just what skill it takes to excel and you love soccer, because it is a game all its own. "The World's Game", and we are part of this world.

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