Column: Soccer Can’t Compete

Despite global reach, soccer isn't world's greatest game
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The 2010 World Cup is in full swing – even if the U.S. was eliminated in the second round. I’ve played soccer, coached it and covered it, and there’s a lot to like about the sport.

First, soccer players are great athletes. The pros run about six miles a game. They can settle the ball down from any direction in a split second, play keep-away with it for days, and then blast it right on target, with either foot.

For TV viewers, it’s a pleasure to see the great expanse of green on your screen, with no TV timeouts interrupting play. And, unlike baseball’s World Series, the world is actually invited to play in the World Cup. It’s almost every nation’s favorite sport. And you can play it anywhere, with anything.

I’ve seen soccer played in the streets of Bangkok, the alleys of Buenos Aires, and the wide-open fields of British public schools. I’ve seen them play under the lights of Tokyo’s fenced-in asphalt courts, and during dusk on the Canary Island’s empty beaches, with just two sandals for a goal.

It is, truly, the world’s game. That’s why Time magazine contributor Daniel Okrent concluded the best athlete of all time isn’t Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan, but Pelé. Because, he said, everyone plays soccer.

But you don’t have to be a xenophobe or a Philistine or just a knucklehead to find fault with this game. Take the start. I counted the Germans passing the ball at midfield 17 times before they even considered advancing forward – which is, after all, where the goal is located.

When they finally do try to score, there’s an excellent chance the play will be called offside, which is determined by an imaginary line that goes back and forth with the last defender. Yes, it’s hard to tell, which might explain why the refs blow the call half the time. Or perhaps it’s because they are the worst officials I’ve ever seen – in any sport.

As a result, a goal in soccer is as rare as Halley’s Comet. The World Cup’s first nine matches featured a grand total of seven goals. That’s about one goal every two hours – and games are only 90 minutes.

Or, about that. No one can tell for sure, because whenever a player is injured, the referee tacks on extra time. But only he knows how much. It’s the only game in the world where just one guy knows when it ends.

What’s worse than the Official Pretend Clock are the unofficial pretend injuries. When you see a player jump in the air, fall to the ground, and spin like a lathe, you start looking for a sniper in the stands, until the replay shows he wasn’t touched by … anything. Every sport in the world celebrates toughness – mental or physical – except this one, which celebrates athletes acting like wimps.

Add it all up – and it all adds up to a one-one tie, soccer’s favorite score. This is not a problem just for Americans suffering from ADD, but for anyone who cares about competition. The whole idea of keeping score, after all, is to see who’s better. But in this year’s first round of 48 games, about one-quarter ended in ties – usually one-to-one.

But in the second round, even the World Cup needs to pick a winner. If 30 minutes of overtime can’t settle it, they go to a shoot-out, where players from each team take turns shooting directly on the helpless goalie, who has to guess if the shooter will kick it to the right, or the left. It has all the strategic intrigue of rock-paper-scissors – without the scissors.

So they spend two hours playing a game in which it’s virtually impossible to score – then settle it with an unrelated contest in which it’s virtually impossible not to score. And that’s how the world’s favorite sport picks the world’s best team.

So, yes, soccer is the World’s Game. It’s just not the world’s greatest game.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.


  1. By Rod Johnson
    July 2, 2010 at 11:33 am | permalink

    I’ll be so glad when the World Cup is over so we won’t have to read any more insipid, provincial articles about about how soccer is/isn’t the “world’s greatest game.” I’m sure when you’re on deadline pulling this folksy chestnut out seems like a good idea, but it’s been done and done and done and *done*.

  2. By Anon-U-Are
    July 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm | permalink

    And he backs up his column by telling us what? His vacation spots — Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, etc…

    I will now mimic the sound of air being rapidly let out of the neck of a balloon.

  3. July 4, 2010 at 1:48 pm | permalink

    There is actually something more predictable than commentaries on soccer’s status during the World Cup, and that’s the inevitable accusation that any one who levels the slightest criticism against soccer is “insipid and provincial.”

    In fact, I did predict it, in the piece itself, when I wrote that, “…you don’t have to be a xenophobe or a Philistine or just a knucklehead to find fault with this game.” I wrote that sentence in the full knowledge that once I listed my first criticism of the game, after a page of praise, someone would accuse me of just that. And you did not disappoint. Thank you for unwittingly proving my point.

    As for the second reader, no, I did not vacation in any of those places. They were all business trips, including Tokyo to see the 2002 World Cup for a cover story on Tony Sanneh for Northwest Airlines magazine, and to Buenos Aires to see the great rivalry between the Boca Juniors and River. I mentioned these to point out soccer is truly the World’s Game – and to make a pre-emptive attempt to demonstrate that my perspective was not “provincial,” but the exact opposite. (Perhaps the first reader didn’t get that far – or doesn’t know what the word means.)

    And here’s the most predictable thing of all: the more sophomoric a reader’s response, the more likely he is to refuse to sign his name.

    There are people who legitimately need to remain anonymous, of course, including whistleblowers and those afraid of losing their jobs. But on the internet, anonymity is usually just cowardice masquerading as courage. (I salute Mr. Johnson for signing his name.)

    And this brings us to a fun little story from Up North, where a friend of mine owns a popular bar, Dockside, on Torch Lake. One of his regular customers noticed that he had put in new second-floor windows, for which the contractor had apparently failed to get a permit. Fair enough. But instead of bringing this to the owner’s attention, where it could easily have been remedied, the customer called the authorities to report the omission. The owner paid the $72 to clear things up. But he took one more step, buying the following sign and posting it outside the deck so boaters can read it as they float by:

    “To the person who filed the complaint: People who wish to remain anonymous aren’t proud of their behavior.

    Permit $ 72
    Sign $150
    Exposing you: Priceless.”

    An update: After the owner asked one patron if he was the one who called in the complaint, he at first denied it, then later admitted it. I doubt he eats there anymore.

    In contrast, you might check out my website blog, at, where a loyal reader also disagreed with the piece, but managed to do so without being disagreeable. If all responders had his intelligence and class, the internet would be a better place.

    So, I hope you have a happy Fourth of July – whoever you are – and I hope all the readers do, too.

    It’s a beautiful day!

    -John U. Bacon

  4. By Rod Johnson
    July 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm | permalink

    I haven’t watched a second of the World Cup, John, and I’m not a soccer fan, so, fail. I have, however, read dozens and dozens of these “ain’t soccer borin’?” articles before. But I will concede that provincial was unwarranted. I stand by “insipid,” however.

  5. July 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm | permalink

    This last one gave me a chuckle.

    I’m quite content to leave it at that.


  6. By D.P. O'Connell
    July 5, 2010 at 4:08 am | permalink

    Dear John,

    Clearly you’ve spent a lot of time watching and following soccer, and you make some interesting points. Two points I would add in reply, however:

    1.) You don’t really nominate another sport in soccer’s place as the world’s greatest game. It’s easy to criticize, but you don’t put yourself out there and offer an alternative. Baseball would be my second choice, but as you point out, it’s not truly a world sport.

    2.) The very grounds on which you criticize soccer are those very qualities which make it great. Here are a few examples:

    a.) Strategy – The Germans, surely one of the most exiting and vibrant teams this year (and others), show amazing skill in their passing attempts and set-ups. The fact that it isn’t a one-way game that charges for the goal line (like American football) is not a bad thing. Your comments on this point remind me of the Simpsons’ satire on how Americans perceive soccer.

    b.) Offsides is a penalty, just like in American football and the line is no more imaginary than the one in American football. And, really, it’s a bit hyperbolic to say the calls are blown “half the time.” There are controversies and bad calls, to be sure, but that is what makes soccer such a fascinating spectator sport: it lacks the boring legalism of American football and gives us something to argue about for years to come.

    c.) Infrequent Goals and the so-called “Official Pretend Clock” — again, soccer lacks the boring legalism of seconds and 10ths of seconds (as in, say, basketball), and soccer fans are not obsessed with the money shot or goal, but rather with the quality of play — even if it ends up 1:1 or 0:0.

    d.) One other thing that makes soccer great: it can end in a 1:1 tie and one can STILL say: “That was an amazing game.”

    e.) Shootouts don’t intrigue you? I don’t know honestly how to respond to this, except to ask: where were you during Germany-Argentina in 2006? If you weren’t sitting on the edge of your seat with every shot, then for you I have only pity.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

  7. By Rod Johnson
    July 5, 2010 at 12:29 pm | permalink

    Deal. Even journalistic giants have an off day. :)

  8. By Andrew Carvin
    July 6, 2010 at 10:30 am | permalink

    I have a lot of respect for the athleticism of Soccer. But PRO soccer can be summed up nicely with Mr. Bacon’s quote: “Every sport in the world celebrates toughness – mental or physical – except this one, which celebrates athletes acting like wimps.”

    This is precisely why Soccer is uninteresting to most Americans. Americans celebrate hard work and project that onto all facets of their lives, sports included. If a pro baseball, football, or MMA athlete acted like a pro soccer player, his career would be severely tarnished.

    People that personally attack Mr. Bacon for writing this pp-ed are hilarious. He is entitled to his opinion, and he’s getting paid for it. Last I checked, anonymous posters are not. I guess sports imitates life–soccer fans also have delusions of personal injury–they are so easily offended by a pretty tame editorial!

  9. By Marco Lannan
    July 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm | permalink

    Part of why I like soccer is precisely because it’s not as brutal as football. The more I watch “American” football, and the more I learn about concussions and other lifelong injuries it causes, the more I feel like I’m party to something grotesque.

    But soccer is rough. You complainers imply it’s a game for milquetoasts, but you couldn’t possibly want a tougher representative of your country than Clint Dempsey, who got battered every time he touched the ball–and never dived, but kept bouncing back for more. He’s like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, but real. Or how about US defender Jay DeMerit, who says, “If I’m not bleeding after a game, I’m not doing my job.”

    Diving is a stupid and annoying part of soccer, but it’s not “celebrated”…players often (but not often enough, by a long shot) get carded for it. Announcers complain about it. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben are almost universally reviled for their diving, and even their fans are embarrassed by the dives.

    But finally, if you think working the ref to get a call is un-American, you’ve never played basketball. Falling down on screens? Crying out and falling over on layups? Flopping to draw a charging call? All part of the game. I know players who are experts at hitting their own thighs on contested layups, so that it sounds like they’re getting hit.

    Soccer’s like any sport, or even most kinds of music. It takes some work and time to discover and appreciate the nuances, so that jazz, for instance, doesn’t just sound like noise. Or so you can appreciate, rather than be bored by, the drama of a batter fouling off pitch after pitch, slowly breaking a pitcher down so that four innings from now the team can make a breakthrough. Anyway, different strokes for different folks, and I get why people might not like soccer. But for me, it’s better than John U.’s favorite sport of hockey. At least soccer doesn’t depend on fighting.

  10. By Karen Moorhead
    July 7, 2010 at 11:32 am | permalink

    I would love to read your description of Tour De France (TdF by those who love it and follow on twitter). It seems to be the opposite of soccer and the riders keep on going with bloody knees and elbows until finally a bone is broken and they are pulled from the tour. It is long and brutal and simply amazing that people can do it once, much less many times.

    Pro cycling is very popular in Europe and I hope Americans interest continues to grow.

    John, your commentary on this sport would be very interesting and the cyclist athletes show the epitome of tenacity, in my opinion. Would love to hear yours.

  11. July 8, 2010 at 2:32 am | permalink

    Okay! I don’t often respond to readers’ comments, based on a philosophy that goes back to the rules of writers’ workshops. In most, the writer is not allowed to respond to comments and questions, for the simple reason that that the piece should speak for itself. But there are times, of course, I can’t resist. This was one of those times – though if I knew Mr. Johnson didn’t watch a second of World Cup soccer, I’d be less surprised he would not be interested in columns about the World Cup, and I would have refrained.

    But have dived in, might as well keep swimming. As they say, if you’re going to eat the horse, you might as well eat the tail.

    Besides, the letters that followed were quite thoughtful, and warrant a thoughtful reply.

    From the top – or middle, I guess.

    For D.P. O’Connell: You are correct. I wimped out of naming the greatest sport. In the studio, I said, at the end, “Hockey is.” But that was just for a laugh. I love hockey, and think it’s the greatest sport – but the worst league. So, I wimped out of actually naming one.

    Taking the rest of your points:
    -Strategy: I agree, it can be very interesting, and I LIKE the fact that the game goes back and forth – a la basketball and hockey – but it doesn’t go back and forth nearly enough for my tastes. Too much time in the middle, doing nothing – or what we call in journalism, “Clearing your throat.”

    As for the Simpsons – it should come as no surprise I almost quoted the show in this piece, as follows, “It’s all here – fast-kicking, low scoring, and ties? You bet!” Can’t beat that show.

    -Offsides: Actually, the fact that the offsides line moves in soccer makes it a lot more imaginary to me than the static, play-by-play line in football – and much harder to call correctly. You are dead on, of course, that claiming refs blow the call “half the time” is hyperbolic – but hey, it’s a column. Still, I should have not cut “seems like” from the piece.

    -I agree with your point about not bowing to the relentless “legalism” of other sports – this is why I don’t want instant replay in baseball or soccer, except for home runs and goals – but if you ARE keeping the time, why not tell us what it is? Why not tell the players and coaches, who need to know to affect the best possible strategy?

    -Ties: I can live with a good tie game, but not one with only a handful of shots on net. If passing is a great thing to behold, so is shooting. goaltending, and rebounding – and all the things we can’t enjoy when they never shoot.

    -Shoot-outs: Yes, I took in the classic shoot-out between Germany and Argentina in2006, and it was great. As was Ghana and Uruguay. But unlike – yes! – the hockey shootouts, where there are endless possibilities and a fair chance for both players, the soccer shoot-out is just too simple for my tastes.
    But this raises the two biggest issues I have with soccer: Great game, yes, but unlike our favorite sports, where they are constantly fine-tuning the delicate balance between offense and defense, FIFA lets defense dominate, and will never consider the slightest change in its game.

    And the second major beef is: whenever you point this out to soccer fans, they conclude you must be a Baconator-eating, knuckle-dragging moron who can never appreciate the World’s Game.

    However – and this is important – your letter was unfailingly intelligent, fair-minded and good-humored throughout, and you raised many good points. This is the kind of debate happy hours were made for.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking letter.


  12. July 8, 2010 at 2:53 am | permalink

    For Mr. Lannan:

    You clearly know your stuff, and raised a lot of good points— but as usual, I can’t say I agree with all of them. (If I did, I’d be a complete hypocrite in my opening column!)

    I agree that football, especially, has become too violent and dangerous. The players are bigger, faster and stronger, but our bones and ligaments and skulls are no better, and therein lies the problem. I don’t think we’re too far from making dramatic changes in the game. I, too, am starting to feel guilty for my love of the game. The long-term future is not bright – for the sport or the health of those who play it.

    I also agree that the U.S. soccer team features some of the toughest players in the sport. But – sorry, Marco – the sport is still soccer. And while you’re right that “celebrated” is too strong a term for the reaction to fake injuries, they are tolerated far more than they would be in football or hockey. And the stretcher business is just embarrassing for all involved.

    -You also make a good point about basketball players taking charges, and the like. But there is a crucial difference: basketball defenders or football punters might feign getting knocked over, but not being injured. That’s the aspect I find such a turn-off. When you see a stretcher come out in football, the player actually needs it.

    That said, another reader on my site pointed out that soccer does feature one of the best time-honored gestures of sportsmanship, which occurs when a player kicks the ball out of bounds to give time for an injured opponent, followed by the latter’s team giving the ball back on the throw-in. It is analogous to the Tour de France leader holding up the pack when a competitor falls, allowing him to catch up. And really, those are just about the two best examples of sportsmanship customs in any sport, anywhere.

    (And as for Ms. Moorhead’s question, yes, I love the Tour de France – the most demanding competition in sports, in my view, with great guts on display, and surprisingly vital teamwork – but the drugs are threatening to eclipse the good of the sport as much as they are of baseball. But more on that another day!)

    All in all, I very much enjoyed these letters, and the fine debate that ensued. Thanks to you thoughtful folks, I pondered a lot of points I would not have otherwise, and have been moved to modify my positions on a number of fronts.

    All THAT said, I’ll leave you with this final thought: Get the hell up! No one touched you!

    (There, I said it!)

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for writing.


    p.s. To the good Mr. Johnson: I am surely no journalistic giant, any way you measure it (I stand 5-8, for starters) but then I didn’t think I had had an off-day, either! So, what do I know.

  13. By abc
    July 8, 2010 at 11:14 am | permalink

    One of the best time-honored gestures of sportsmanship… occurs at the end of the Army-Navy football game.

  14. July 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm | permalink

    Couldn’t agree more.

    A must read: John Feinstein’s “A Civil War,” about the Army-Navy game. Not his most famous work, but arguably his best.

    -John U. Bacon

  15. By D.P. O'Connell
    July 11, 2010 at 8:57 pm | permalink

    Thanks, John, for your reply and it’s a good debate to have. I think you have a point about FIFA (which seems sometimes to be slower to embrace change than Vatican City): they do need to have more of a balance between offense and defense.

    Today’s game (which was an ugly match, skill- and style-wise) is a case in point. It too could easily have come down to penalty kicks. I’m biased as a fan of Germany, but I thought yesterday’s match with Uruguay was much more of a fluid and skilled game.

    But it’s a tough thing to fine-tune without spoiling the game. We’ll see what comes in the years ahead. Thanks again for your detailed reply.

  16. July 12, 2010 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Thank you, Mr. O’Connell, for a great discussion.

    And, especially, for doing what too few soccer fans do: Separate constructive criticism of the game from ignorant caterwauling. When we debate the three-point line in basketball, instant replay in baseball, overtime in football and interference in hockey, it’s not because we don’t understand or care about those sports, but just the opposite: we love them, and want to protect them from becoming imbalanced.

    I wish more soccer fans were like you, and understood this!

    Again, thank you!