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A Brief History of Soccer—and American apathy towards it

Italy's 1982 World Cup victory. Not that I noticed at the time.

Every four years, thousands of Americans put on the strangest collective theater in history.

They pack local bars, mainly Irish pubs, at ungodly hours of the day (often early in the morning).  Wolfing down English breakfasts of fatty meats and eggs—lubricated with beer—these Americans crowd around TV sets to watch sporting contests from nations they have barely heard of, with players whose names they could hardly pronounce.  By witnessing they’re emotions, you’d think that their lives were on the line.

Yet just as suddenly, when the tournament ends, these very same Americans, so passionate in their allegiance, return to their lives as if the last ninety minutes never happened. 

 In fact, for the next three years, they even ridicule the very game they enjoyed watching only recently. 

Such is the dilemma that is soccer in the United States.

Why, apart from the quadrennial World Cup, are Americans apathetic about the world’s most popular sport?  Is it a lack of a viable professional league in the United States? Major League Soccer, a survivor of a league if there ever was one, still has a long way to go. 

Do not enough Americans play the sport?  On the contrary, soccer is one of the most popular participatory sports in America’s schools and colleges. 

Is American soccer talent not on par with the rest of the world?  Maybe, some time ago.  Yet today’s national team can go toe-to-toe with just about any other team in the world…and even win once in a while.

Unfortunately, it may still boil down to a worn-out rationale.  Yes, American society as it is does not embrace soccer because the sport is simply very un-American.

Soccer, or association football, developed in Europe (especially Tuscany) in the Middle Ages as an impromptu, vicious game between hundreds of players on mud pits with a misshapen ball to kick, gouge and punch at.  Its violence and chaotic nature caused many states to ban the game, and it remained a localized, “street” affair until the 1700s.

By the 18th century, football had begun a process of standardization, primarily in England.  Rules were established that reduced team size, regulated scoring, and reduced violence severely.  The first professional teams emerged from industrial towns in the mid-late 1800s—towns that are still soccer powers such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, etc.  The English Football Association (FA) emerged soon after, and the English version of the game spread across Europe, as well as countries with large European immigrant populations such as Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and to a small extent the United States.

Today, almost every country in the world has its own professional soccer league, including club tournaments and a worldwide national championship, the World Cup, played every four years since 1930, except 1942 and 1946 due to World War II.

Yet the United States remains an outsider in the soccer world, largely by choice.  If we look at the American sports landscape, we can see why this happened:

  1. Americans love games we invent ourselves (or adapt from other games) – Football was basically rugby with body armor and beer commercials.  Baseball was a schoolyard English game that became tight uniforms and half-blind umpires.  Of course, basketball was created in 1891 so that men can pass the time in the winter.  Same with hockey…I mean, what else can you do in coldest Canada with ice skates, a stick and a frozen pond?
  2. Americans need games with weapons and armor – Baseball only works because players wield clubs to project a hard object a long distance.  Ditto with hockey, although the increase in body armor lends itself better to point # 1.  Even basketball has its weaponry; check the entourage of any NBA star through a metal detector if you don’t believe me.
  3. Americans require high-scoring games – This plays into both the Puritan ethic of productivity and the postwar ethos of “more is better.” Running around a field for an hour and a half better produce something—and if it is low-scoring, make sure each score counts for a lot of points.  That’s how football gets by. 
  4. Americans enjoy sports that are seasonally appropriate – this is why we tolerate, and embrace, baseball.  While seemingly banal and slow, it is the perfect game for a lazy summer afternoon.  The more active sports occur when the body needs to warm up, in the fall and winter.  Soccer, from a spectator standpoint, makes no sense: why would we willingly stand in a stadium in sub-zero temperatures if there’s low scores and low-violence?
  5. Americans appreciate emotion with a purpose – again, our Puritan ancestors.  It makes no sense to us that every score in a game requires a ticker-tape parade like it does in soccer (especially if the team isn’t winning.)  Touchdown dances, while flamboyant, are mercifully brief, as are home run gestures and hockey high-fives.
  6. Americans love violence – Most Americans, in order to enjoy a sporting event, require at least a modest degree of physical aggression.  Football is all aggression, punctuated by charts and diagrams to paraphrase George Will.  Baseball has running, tagging, and wild pitches that can result in brain damage and bench-clearing brawls.  Hockey, like football, institutionalized violence into its play—although its unofficial violence has abated as of late. Basketball, while seemingly innocuous, has the thrusting elbows, the body blocks and fierce defensive play that entice the brute in all of us.
  7. Americans need the possibility of death – All four of our major sports contain the possibility for violent death.   In the case of football, in the early days, it was the probability, not possibility.  American football evolved into its violent ways by choice: drunk, testosterone-heavy Ivy League toughs chose the physical, more violent version of football over the gentler European variety in the late 19th Century.  It was so rough (fatalities were a regular occurrence) that Theodore Roosevelt ordered colleges to establish rules for football or risk its prohibition.      The other sports are no slouches, either.  Baseball involves the hurtling of a lethal projectile through the air.  So does hockey.  Hockey is even better because of weapons (sticks, possibly skates), projectiles (pucks) and protective armor.  In fact, the NHL All-Star game was born because of a death from an incident on the ice.  Basketball’s fatalities, by contrast, stem largely from abuses off the court—similar to soccer’s predicament (although I doubt NBA players perished through plane crashes in the Alps or crossing Colombian drug lords.)

 Soccer, while so popular in the rest of the world, still lags here because our society has an inherent antipathy towards the game.  In a society forged through brutality, violence, vicious capitalism and ferocious time management, soccer is the most alien of games. 

Its insistence on collective play, elegance in movement, lackadaisical timekeeping, and even the irrational emotions make the game seem so…well…foreign.

Even though I grew up with soccer, some of its greatest moments were still foreign to me. 

In 1982, I was playing with toys, when all of a sudden; my parents were jumping up and down, screaming and yelling.  Then our landlord and his wife came into the apartment, yelling and waving an Italian flag.  In all the commotion, I decided to jump up and down with them.  We packed ourselves into my dad’s 1975 Ford Grenada and cruised down 18th Avenue in Brooklyn, which was then an Italian neighborhood, and saw what looked like an impromptu fair.  People were dancing, laughing, and waving Italian flags.

I didn’t know what happened.

What did happen was that Italy, Dad’s mother country, just won its third World Cup in Spain in 1982.  I was a kid, so forgive my obliviousness.  Yet I’m not sure I wouldn’t have reacted the same way if I was older.

Will soccer be embraced by America?  Eventually.  Then again, it may need a radical shift in American population for soccer to become an American staple—a shift that is already taking place.  Millions of immigrants from soccer-crazed Central and South America are already in this country, and single-handedly buttressing MLS’ fan base. 

Yet what is to say that the next generation will eschew soccer like so many of the past?  I guess we’ll have to see in another four years.


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This Day in History 2/22 – “The Miracle on Ice”; the US beats the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics

I love the Winter Olympics, much more than the summer variety. 

The sports are more dangerous, the speed more deft-defying.  Where else is the use of cowbells so encouraged?

So it is fitting that today we commemorate one of the greatest moments in our Olympic history.  In 1980, in the little hamlet of Lake Placid, New York, the Winter Games was hosted for the second time.  Ice hockey would capture the world’s attention, as the United States, a young inexperienced squad of college stars and amateur talent, faced off against the mightiest team in the world, the Soviet Union.

March 3, 1980 cover of Sports Illustrated. The only edition to run without a headline nor a caption. None was necessary.

This was more than David and Goliath.  It was more like David’s invalid brother versus Goliath and the rest of his family.  The USSR had only recently shellacked the Americans in an exhibition game.  Yet the US had a secret weapon, a tenacious coach named Herb Brooks who wouldn’t stop believing that the Soviet juggernaut could be beaten.

On February 22, 1980, the US faced the USSR.  In the post-Vietnam era, during the Iran hostage crisis and a terrible recession, it was tough to feel good about America.  Many people felt that maybe this plucky little team can pull something off.  It seemed like wishful thinking.

Two thirds of the way into the game, it sure seemed like a miracle was needed.  The team faced a deficit early in the game–3-2 at the end of the second period.  However, like it did so many times in the preliminary games, the Americans gutted it out and managed to overcome their deficit. 

By the end of the game, within the last few seconds and the score 4-3 in favor of the US, ABC commentator Al Michaels uttered a famous phrase: “Do you believe in miracles?!”  The name stuck, and the game was forever known as the “Miracle on Ice.”  It was a lone bright spot on a very dark decade, and everyone who was alive and aware knows about it.

What some people often forget about the game was that both teams spawned players that would resonate in the National Hockey League.  The Americans who made good in the NHL included Neal Broten, Mike Ramsey, Mark Pavelich, and Bob Suter–who is the brother of NHL veteran Gary Suter and father of current player Ryan Suter.

What’s even more suprising is the Soviet talent that made its way to this side of the Atlantic.  In 1986, Alexander Mogilny–who was not in the 1980 Olympic squad–was the first Soviet player to defect to the US to play in the NHL.  Since then a slew of players from the 1980 squad made careers in the NHL, including Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, and perhaps the greatest goaltender of all time, Vladislav Tretiak.  Although he never played in the NHL, Tretiak was a longtime goaltenders coach, tutoring the likes of Ed Belfour, Dominick Hasek and Jocelyn Thibault.

Attached is the last few minutes of that fateful game.  Explain the context of the game with your students so they can enjoy the whole experience.

Besides, where else can you watch sports during the school day?

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Celebration via Office Supplies: The History of the Ticker-Tape Parade

Yankees Ticker Tape

Yankees Ticker Tape Parade, from Yahoo! Sports

Being in New York, I can’t ignore the fact that many of my students are out today. 

It’s not swine flu.  More like Yankee Whooping Cough.

Today the 27-time World Series Champion New York Yankees received their hard-earned reward with a ticker tape parade up lower Broadway to City Hall, the so-called “Canyon of Heroes.”  I was at the last such event, in 2000, and the excitement and frenzy are an experience to remember.  There was a chance I could’ve gone to the 1994 parade for the New York Rangers, but a final exam was scheduled that day.

Still, it got me thinking: what’s with all this office paper out the window?  Why does the wanton destruction of perfectly good paper products constitute a proper tribute to a champion? 

Thank the Statue of Liberty for that.  That’s right.  Lady Liberty is the copper culprit that began the tradition of the ticker tape parade.

On October 29, 1886, the first ticker-tape parade was held to celebrate the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.  The banks, brokerage houses and businesses on lower Broadway celebrated by taking the used ticker tape from their adding machines and stock tickers and tossing them out the window on the crowds below.  Nobody planned it—the brokers  probably thought it was a convenient way to get rid of the trash.  Nonetheless, a tradition was born.

From then on, the city fathers saw the popularity of such events and created a tradition of honoring military triumphs, foreign visitors, space voyages and sports championships.  Since 1886, there have been 180 paper-strewn triumphs down Broadway.   Most have taken place before 1963, and are much rarer today.

 In the beginning, mostly military and political heroes were honored.  Admiral George Dewey was honored for his service in Manila in 1899.  Teddy Roosevelt got one in 1910 after he returned from Africa with enough animal carcasses to fill a natural history museum—which is exactly where they went.  1945 was a busy year: if you had at least two stars on your uniform, you went under the tape.  Eisenhower, de Gaulle, Nimitz, Halsey, and General Wainwright (from Corregidor) each received a parade.

In the late 1940, 1950s and early 1960s, however, the city decided to go apeshit on these things.  If you were foreign, had a crown, or some elected office, you got a parade. 

Any tinpot dictator of a moth-eaten republic got a parade.

 Presidents of places like El Salvador, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Guinea…parade, parade, parade, and parade.

And what of the champion sports teams of New York of this era?  The New York Giants got one in 1954, for winning the National League pennant.  For the Pennant!  It was in September and the World Series hadn’t even started yet!  As for the Yankees, champions in 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936-1939, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1949-1953, 1956, and 1958, they would not receive a parade for their effort until their World Series win of 1961, almost 40 years after their first trophy for the city.  That’s real gratitude, for you!

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, cities across America became very wary of open car parades in crowded cities, especially places with high rises that provide such perfect vantage points for snipers.  The ticker-tape parade became a rarer occasion, often exclusively used for space exploration, military triumphs and sports champions.  Recent non-sports parades celebrated Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and war veterans of Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

Hope all my kids enjoyed themselves downtown.  Today, thanks to computers, there’s no real ticker-tape at a ticker-tape parade.  Most of the paper is either confetti provided to offices by the city, or scrap paper that has been shredded in office shredders—don’t look up or you might get a staple in your eye. 

I just hope my students can do something great to earn their own parade one day.

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