When I was 30 years old (shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs), I knew nothing about soccer. Oh, I probably knew vaguely how it was played and I’m sure I’d noticed kid’s teams playing on the school fields on weekends, kicking and squealing in their colorful uniforms. I probably knew of the World Cup but I can assure you, I had never watched a soccer game, on TV or in person. When I was 35, we decided to enroll our son, Aaron, in the local youth soccer league. I think that happened because his friend’s Mom was going to coach a team and wanted to know if Aaron would play. She also asked if I would help her coach. She actually played soccer, so I said, Yes, figuring I could learn as I go. There wasn’t much to learn that year … Instructional League wasn’t known as beehive ball for nothing. If you could teach one or two kids the idea of passing instead of ball-chasing, you’d had a good year. Aaron took to the game like a natural, not so much because of superior coaching but because he emulated Steve, another player on his team who had older brothers and was very good. Aaron was hooked. So was his Dad. Him on playing, me on coaching … and later, the game itself.
I would coach youth soccer … or football as it is known in the rest of the world … for over ten years. For some of those years, I was coaching both Aaron’s team and my daughter, Amy’s team, dashing between games on Saturdays. When they were young, all I needed to coach were the tips I picked up at the annual coaching clinics put on by the league. The skills I was teaching the kids were rudimentary and most of the parents knew even less than I did. Back then, the game was a frenetic rush up and down the field to score goals. Coaches played their best players at forward and no matter how much you worked on passing the ball at practice, once little Johnny … or Heather … was headed up the field, Mom and Dad were yelling, Shoot! Shoot! Score a goal! As my kids grew, I read more books on soccer drills and soccer strategy. Those were my running days so I could keep up with the kids physically but it wasn’t long before their soccer skills left me in the dust. I began to understand the importance of maintaining shape on defense and of build-up on offense instead of having individuals rushing down the field to try to score. I not only learned what offside meant but learned that pulling your defenders forward to leave an attacker offside before the ball was played was known as an offside trap.
The weeks of the World Cup are a feast for soccer fans and with the U.S. team going through to the round of sixteen, even casual fans are paying more attention. Still, I’m willing to bet you’ve during the last few weeks, you’ve heard someone disparage the game, if not in your circle of acquaintances, on your local sports talk station. Particularly among former football players and football fans, there’s a bias against what most of the world sees as The Beautiful Game. My brother-in-law used to joke that it was a communist game, and while he was mostly kidding, it is reflective of an attitude that it’s not OUR game. It doesn’t help, either, that we’ve never been very good at it which is remarkable given how many young kids play soccer. Part of the problem is that football is still king in most cities and when high school rolls around, many of the top athletes focus there. I suspect that’s why U.S. Women’s soccer has risen to the top in world competition while Men’s has lagged behind. Still, you’d think that with generations of youth soccer players behind us, the game would be more popular.
Yes, I know the arguments. Soccer is slow. The games are too long. There’s not enough scoring. Really? Compared to baseball? Compared to football? A soccer and a football game take roughly the same amount of time. Try timing how much of a football game is actually action … much of a typical three hour game consists of huddles, time outs and commercials. And, by the way, giving seven points for a touchdown doesn’t mean football is higher scoring. If FIFA gave seven points for a goal, then Germany would have defeated Portugal 28-0. OK? I’m not arguing against football … I love it. I’m a USC graduate, for Pete’s Sake. I just think the negativity toward the game of soccer is cultural, not rational, and that if anyone takes the time to watch … and learn a little bit about the sport … they’ll find it has a beauty to it that goes beyond scoring. If. If they are able to ignore the flopping.
Flopping: the fine art of falling down as if you’ve been shot with a Bushmaster rifle any time a player from the opposition gets close in order to elicit a foul call … or even a yellow card … by the ref. My son still plays soccer on occasion and he defends many of the floppers, saying that soccer injuries hurt more than I know. Still, we’ve all seen a player crumble to the ground, writhing in pain, when there was little or no contact. Or, as happened in the Uruguay-Italy game, a player got kicked in the ankle and spent the next two minutes on the ground holding his knee … which miraculously healed the minute a yellow card was issued. Or even worse, when Luis Suarez bit Georgio Chiellini, he acted as if he’d been elbowed. So, when this posts, I’ll be curled up in my recliner watching Brazil play Chile, admiring the build up and the quality of the set plays. I’ll be putting my body English on each shot on goal and cheering each tackle on defense. Yes, I also may be yelling at the ref when he calls a foul for a flop or scream, C’mon, get up to a forward mortally wounded by an imaginary foul. Oh, yeah, and once a team gets ahead and the fans start singing whatever it is they sing, I may turn down the volume. But at least it’s not vevuzelas.