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Fair Ball

Italy's a wonderful place to honeymoon. Every city has plush hotels with vistas. Every restaurant has extraordinary cuisine. And every television in every bar has soccer. On my just-completed Italian honeymoon, I watched approximately 30 of the 48 first-round matches of the World Cup. My wife and I coordinated our visits to vineyards and duomos so we could catch essential games like Paraguay versus South Africa. At night in bed, we turned the television to the daily Italian wrap-up Notti Mondiali, featuring an endless stream of talking heads and gratuitous toe-to-head pans of the show 's leggy, braless female co-host. You might consider this itinerary an inauspicious start to a marriage. I consider it quite auspicious: Everything I love--at once.

I couldn't have had that back home. Watching Italy play Ecuador in A Florentine bar, I was surrounded by shrieking women and gesticulating men. But even in a year of glorious play by the U.S. team, there's neither shrieking nor gesticulating stateside. In fact, during this Cup, American soccer fans more often hear the gripes of our shrill countrymen who disparage the game as foreign and "communist." For years I've been filling a file with the rantings of American sportswriters, who haven't a clue why the world is so nuts for the game. After listening to these critics for so long, I've distilled their complaints into four arguments--one more wrong than the next.

First, there is the condescending reduction of the world's soccer fervor to mere nationalism. By this logic, fans don't love the game per se; they simply love their countries. Soccer provides an outlet for extreme patriotism in European and Latin countries that offer few other outlets for it. Americans, these soccer scorners imply, don't need the game; we can still go to war. But nationalism can't explain a recent scuffle between supporters of Argentina and Brazil: In a remote rural outpost, fans competed to hoist their flags on their village's tallest coconut tree. This friendly disagreement quickly turned into an ugly battle, fought with iron rods and stones, and resulted in ten injured. Nearby, another Argentina fan tried to plant a flag atop a building. The exuberant supporter stumbled and fell onto a power line, causing his electrocution and death. How do I know that love of the game, rather than nationalism, animated these crazed fans? Because all of the above occurred in Bangladesh.

Ironically, after describing the game's fans as jingoistic yahoos,the critics' second tack is to dismiss soccer as a snooze.As Allen Barra recently put it in Salon, "It's like that edifying but boring article in The New York Review of Books that you feel guilty for not having tackled." According to this line of attack, soccer can't sustain the interest of short-attention-spanned Americans because there isn't enough scoring. But this is bunk. Baseball, which takes about an hour longer to play, doesn't produce many more runs than soccer produces goals. In ice-hockey games, scores of two to one or three to two are the norm. The more sophisticated version of the "nothing happens in soccer" thesis is that even if baseball doesn't produce many more actual runs, it holds your interest through the dramatic tension that builds as runners get on base and hitters go deep into the count. By contrast, soccer looks like an endless sequence of aimless passing and running, until out of the blue someone kicks the ball into the net.

It looks that way if you're ignorant of the game, that is. Which is just what American soccerphobes prove when they level their third charge: that the game lacks strategy and sophistication. If you've only been exposed to seven- year-old suburbanites chasing after a ball, it's an easy mistake to make. But Albert Camus, the goalkeeper and philosopher, was closer to the truth when he wrote, "All that I know about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football." Indeed, consider the existential crises of the midfielder, who must simultaneously guard a section of the field and facilitate offense. When an opposing player enters his section with the ball, he doesn't just try to contain the attacker or rob him of the ball: He eyes the other opponents flooding his zone; he tries to compensate for defensive teammates temporarily out of position because they moved forward to join the attack; he tries to silently communicate with his co-defenders to set an offside trap; he strategizes a counterattack,which usually involves passing to a teammate running an intricate, preplanned pattern. It's multilinear calculus that inspires lively debates about the virtues of formations and stylistic approaches--the Italians' defensive catenaccio ("lockdown"), say, versus Holland 's attacking,"total" football.

The fourth complaint contradicts several of the others: Soccer isn't overly jingoistic or simple; it's overly effete.I hear this Buchananite complaint from some of my supposedly cosmopolitan TNR colleagues.As The New York Times' Robert Lipsyte wrote in 1993, America's soccer proponents are "the sporting equivalents of uppity vegetarians, wine tasters, cineastes, dog snobs." And it's true: When American journalists write about soccer,they do sound like dog snobs. Lipsyte's own paper waxes poetic about "lovely aerial passes"; ABC announcers talk about "delightful players." In so doing,they denude the game of its violent side, its touch of the WWF--turning "the people's game" into a yuppie commodity. Such journalism is symptomatic of a deeper societal problem. Upper-middle-class American parents sign up their children for youth soccer leagues because they hope to promote self-esteem and teach cooperation. Progressive schools espouse soccer over baseball because "everyone gets to touch the ball" and over American football because it's "less violent." No phrase captures the game's American ethos better than "soccer mom."

But there's a simple solution to this perception problem: Let soccer be soccer. If Lipsyte and Barra actually watched professionals play it, they would see a game far more brutal than basketball, let alone baseball. Athleticism? Few American athletes--pampered by countless time-outs, breaks between innings, huddles, and foul shots--could survive soccer's 90 minutes of nonstop running. And a bicycle kick is every bit as physically intimidating as a tomahawk dunk. With a little work, even a mediocre marketing mind could save American soccer from its Volvo-driving friends and give it street cred with Joe Six Pack. Some American exceptionalists suggest anything that didn't come across the Atlantic from Europe with the turn-of-the-century migration will never catch on with blue-collar America. But if that were really true, the British monarchy wouldn't dominate American tabloids, nor would there have been a British pop invasion. And if multinational corporations like Nike and Budweiser are bringing basketball to Europe and baseball to Latin America and Asia, there's every reason to believe that with their corporate investment in soccer, they could brand the game for the American working class. It would be a delicious, perverse twist on the caricature of the global market--not the Americanization of the world, but the reverse. Let the honeymoon begin.

Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic.

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