Football is Life
by Charles Lemos, Fri Jul 02, 2010 at 07:25:25 AM EDT
I've read a lot of nonsense over the years on right wing blogs but nothing quite like the rank stupidity of former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's post on why Americans supposedly don't like what we in the rest of the world call football but what you in Anglo America call soccer. If Mr. Thiessen is to be believed football, despite being a multi-billion dollar enterprise, is some sort of socialist sport.
Writing in the American Enterprise Institute blog, Mr. Thiessen finds:
The world is crazy for soccer, but most Americans don’t give a hoot about the sport. Why? Many years ago, my former White House colleague Bill McGurn pointed out to me the real reason soccer hasn’t caught on in the good old U.S.A. It’s simple, really: Soccer is a socialist sport.
Think about it. Soccer is the only sport in the world where you cannot use the one tool that distinguishes man from beast: opposable thumbs. “No hands” is a rule only a European statist could love. (In fact, with the web of high taxes and regulations that tie the hands of European entrepreneurs, “no hands” kind of describes their economic theories as well.)
Soccer is also the only sport in the world that has “hooligans”—proletarian mobs that trash private property whenever their team loses.
Soccer is collectivist. At this year’s World Cup, the French national team actually went on strike in the middle of the tournament on the eve of an elimination match. (Yes, capitalist sports have experienced labor disputes, but can you imagine a Major League Baseball team going on strike in the middle of the World Series?)
At the youth level, soccer teams don’t even keep score and everyone gets a participation trophy. Can you say, “From each according to his ability…”? (The fact that they do keep score later on is the only thing that prevents soccer from being a Communist sport.)
Capitalist sports are exciting—people often hit each other, sometimes even score. Soccer fans are excited by an egalitarian 0-0 tie. When soccer powerhouses Brazil and Portugal met recently at the World Cup, they played for 90 minutes—and combined got just eight shots on net (and zero goals). Contrast this with the most exciting sports moment last week, which came not at the World Cup, but at Wimbledon, when American John Isner won in a fifth-set victory that went 70-68. Yes, even tennis is more exciting than soccer. Like an overcast day in East Berlin, soccer is … boring.
Let's start with opposable thumbs. All primates save tarsiers and marmosets have opposable thumbs and even some marsupials have them so that's clearly not the distinguishing feature of the beast we call homo sapiens. No, what distinguishes humanity from other mammalian beasts is our enhanced cranial capacity, though that seems to be lacking among conservatives, and the fact that we are bipedal. Bipedal from the Latin for having two feet. Funny that given our rather unique ability amongst mammals (birds are also bipeds but obviously not mammals) to motor around on our two feet that then we should have invented a game that primarily involves moving a ball around with one's two feet. But apparently to American conservatives, the obvious is all too often beyond their grasp.
Furthermore, the use of hands is permitted for the goal keeper and other players use their hands to put the ball in play if it has been kicked out of bounds. So those opposable thumbs that Mr. Thiessen finds so essential to our humanity do come into play.
It's is also odd that a conservative would take issue with the rules of the game which are few and remarkably simple. Compared with the rule book for American football, football is rather unregulated on the pitch. No intentional hand touches, the offsides regulation, and no tripping or hard tackling. Add in a few more rules about starting up play and that pretty much covers it. The total number of rules are but 17. I'm not sure the number of rules in American football but I'd daresay an NFL linebacker is a much more regulated beast than a Bundesliga sweeper.
And while the modern game traces its origins to the establishment of the Football Association (FA) at Freemason's Tavern in London in 1863, variants of the game can be found the world over dating back 3,000 years. The first documented use of the English word "football" comes in 1409 and there are references to various kinds of ball games going back to the 9th century. The Greeks and Romans played a version of the game. In pre-Hispanic Central America, a game called tlatchi flourished. The idea of kicking around a ball with one's feet is rather universal it seems.
As per hooliganism, that is largely but not exclusively an English phenomenon more than a global one and more often found at the club level and not at the international level though in 1969 a World Cup elimination game between Honduras and El Salvador was the immediate catalyst (the underlying cause was tension caused by Salvadoran migration into Honduran territory) of a hundred hour war. Even so, it's not like hooliganism doesn't exist in the US. I seem to recall riots in Los Angeles, Denver and Detroit after championships were won. Furthermore I've been to football games on three continents and never once been harassed for rooting against a home team but I was assaulted at Candlestick Park in 1985 during a Mets-Giants game for chanting "Let's Go Mets!" And I've never been more scared for my life at a sporting event than at an Oakland Raiders game. It was as if the prisons had been let out.
No, the reason American conservatives hate football is because it is the world's most democratic game and one that enjoys mass appeal. It is one of only two major sports, the other being rugby, that does not require any specialized equipment to play. But unlike rugby which favours the behemoth, anyone call play football and hence its popularity. All you need is a ball. Even goalposts can be fashioned by simply placing two rocks. Pickup games can involve as few as three people. And it can be played just about anywhere, on grass, on asphalt, on a beach, indoors or out and in any kind of weather.
The democratic egalitarian nature of the game is its greatest feature. The game does not discriminate against the short and stout. David Villa, the Spanish striker so far one of the leading scorers in this World Cup, is but 1.75m or 5 foot 9 inches, pretty much average size for a human male. The Argentine great Diego Maradona even his prime hardly cut some of paradigm of athletic physique and yet he could move the ball with his feet with remarkable precision and artistry. There is no prototypical footballer. As with humanity itself, they come in all shapes and sizes.
But even more football is an apt metaphor for life. It's hard work to score a goal just as in life it is often difficult to achieve one's goals. Often but not always a goal is the result of incredible precision passes each pushing the ball forward. And all too often a brilliant daze of passes goes for naught either stymied by a defender or a final shot gone awry. It's all those near misses that make the goal scored all the more precious. If scoring is all you crave then you're missing the point of football, that life is just a series of mundane events punctuated by some rare surreal ones. So celebrate the surreal and enjoy the mundane because that's life.