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.