I was extremely fortunate to have the day off yesterday, and I am still more fortunate to own a television with picture-in-picture capabilities. I was sitting in my room, watching the World Cup on ESPN and flipping between the USA-Algeria match and that between England and Slovenia and, suddenly, like an unwarranted smack to the face, it hit me: Americans do not belong in the announcers’ booth. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten my fix through streaming Premier League games for years, and as a result I’ve just come to expect my announcers to speak with round vowels and drop the r’s in their words, or if it is something more significant: that, as a general rule, Americans sound silly when they try to speak authoritatively about the obscure sport, usually relegated to white, middle-class suburban 12-year old girls, known as “soccer.”
To be precise, it’s been said bazillions of times that “the World Cup is a unifying event, bringing our World together to celebrate humanity, athleticism, and football.” [Emphasis mine] I don’t know if anyone has yet told the Americans, but their little game called “Football” has a fan-base several orders of magnitude smaller than what the rest of the world calls football. Based on my personal boots-on-the-ground experience, excluding the quadrennial World Cup, Americans tend not to watch much soccer, and the general perception of the sport is remarkably similar to the median American’s perception of Europeans: vaguely effeminate, nuanced, confounding, and something to which the word “prancing” might be attached.
But soccer has a certain fluidity to which American sports fans, spoon-fed on play-by-play analysis of “American football” and baseball, sports which proceed in fits and starts as if afflicted by a severe stutter and punctuated by brief narcoleptic fits, are unaccustomed. The two aforementioned sports are characterized by a distinct lack of physical activity; to wit, there is a lot of standing around. There are moments of frenetic, confused action and long stretches of television-friendly inactivity, which allow “experts” to analyze and quantify gameplay, make banal generalizations about such-and-such a player’s good day or bad day, flirt with attractive female anchors, and engage in an introspection particular to the American male: repressing homoerotic feelings whose origin lies in staring admiringly at sweaty men in tight pants.
There are, however, two sports watched in America that move with any speed or continuity at all: basketball and hockey. But basketball has numerous opportunities for time-outs, and both move sufficiently quick to hold the attention of even the most scatterbrained. It also must be said that hockey carries the promise of violence. This brings to mind the quintessence of American sports, that they render masculinity in absurd burlesque: hypertrophied overweight men mashing into each other play football, tall sinewy men with veneers of urban toughness in baggy shorts play basketball, the beer-drinking All-American man-child wanders about on the Field of Dreams, and Caucasian men from northern climes put on their pads, pick up their sticks, take a whack at a hunk of rubber, and occasionally make a boxing match of what is, ultimately, Ice Follies without the women.
Not only are Americans unaccustomed to the fluid, organic play of elite-level soccer, they find themselves incapable of articulating what is going on: inculcated with the argot of AYSO, we play our games on fields not pitches, wear shoes not boots, and the guy in the ugly long-sleeved shirt and fat-fingered gloves is a goalie and not a keeper. That we so obstinately refer to “American football” as football at all perplexes me, as it is a game played with hands.
This all leads me to believe that Americans, devoid of the attention-span and the capacity to articulate nuance necessary to be a successful footballer, despite success yesterday over a surprisingly formidable Algeria, will continue obdurately with their current mode of play: running up the middle, flouting all rules of verve and politeness, and play aggressive Shock-and-Awe tactics, wearing their opponents down not by outsmarting them, but by grinding them into submission with salvo after salvo of poorly-planned carpet-bombing to the box. The law of large numbers applies here, that given enough shooting opportunities even the most stylistically devoid of teams will find weakness in their superiors.
Physically speaking, soccer players are as close to perfect as possible: lean and toned, muscular in the legs and upper body, and capable of preternatural mental and physical endurance. The American team is a bit too tall, a bit too muscular, and are clunky on the field. It might take a little while for Americans to realize that on the global stage, when it comes to physical prowess and stylistic verve, we just don’t cut it. There is a reason why the World Series consists of one city’s team playing another; we like our American exclusivity, and would likely lose if we had to come up with a home-grown national team a la the World Cup. The Dominican Republic, Cuba, or Japan would likely win that one. In the world of soccer, we are, for now, lucky, and sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. It will run out, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps not. But it will.