13 June 2010

Newbie Soccer Thoughts

I am a systems person; I enjoy watching new systems in action and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I'm also, as one of my CPE supervisors pointed out to me this week, an associative person; I like making connections between seemingly disparate things (both a blessing and a curse in the CPE context, let me tell you).

As such, I've had a field day--or would it be a pitch day?--watching World Cup games this weekend with my my über-enthusiastic, half-German girlfriend. I've been dipping my toes into soccer's waters off and on since the last Cup, but it's starting to get a bit more serious. Among the questions I've been pondering are the following: why don't more Americans like soccer, and am I allowed to support* Germany in the plausible event that Germany and the U.S. meet in the Round of 16 (apparently it would happen if Germany wins its group and the U.S. takes second in its, or vice versa)?

Regarding the former, my working hypothesis is built on the lens of looking at the two most dominant presences on the American sports landscape: football** (it dominates our current sports culture; we can't get enough of it) and baseball (it dominated our past sports culture; we're slowly abandoning it). I'm coming to the conclusion that soccer is more like baseball than football. It's subtler. It requires the fan to have a greater appreciation of small details and a more patient orientation toward brief, intense action rather than the throb of regular scoring. And, just like in the game where the best players only succeed about a third of the time, soccer doesn't always reward brute effort. Kristin caught this telling gem in the Times this morning: "It was a characteristic American effort, full of resolve[***] instead of beauty."

This comment actually sort of leads me to my second question. Many people rightly sing the praises of international soccer's coolest attribute: that the teams' styles often mirror their national personalities. And a major reason I want to support Germany in this tournament is that they play, well, like Germans: organized, patient, attentive to detail. Somewhere around the tenth minute today, I said, "They look like they're spending more of their energy thinking than playing." Like a Bo Ryan basketball team, they're patient, plotting, and sometimes plodding. They're like my parent's Volkswagon Cabrio, which was a humorous and kinda futile attempt at a midlife-crisis car. They're not a sexy pick. They're a sensible one. Sounds like my kinda team.

My problem is this: I'm not so sure we get to pick our loyalties. I grew up a Pirates fan because I lived in the town in Florida where they Spring Trained (this was before the Marlins). And then, when I moved to Milwaukee, I became a Brewers fan. "Root, root, root for the home team" is not easily dismissed in my sports worldview. I think Americans who have spent substantial time in countries that actually care about soccer are well within their rights to transfer their allegiances abroad. But that's not me. Am I stuck with Team USA until they're out?

What do you think about sports allegiances? Do we get to be primarily aligned with the team that makes us say, "I like they way they play"? Or is there something bigger at stake?

* Pitch instead of field and support instead of root for are among the charming vocabulary upgrades you get when you watch soccer (others: match instead of the more pedestrian game and side instead of team, which is fun even though the connotations are troubling). But see below for a major vocabulary pet peeve.

** If you are an American living in America and have not spent significant time in a foreign country (that's context information your hearers usually have), please don't call soccer football. Don't get me wrong, I think it's kind of obnoxious and typically American that we call our much more provincial game by the same name that everybody else (more accurately) uses for the world's most popular sport. But you only confuse things when, as an American having a conversation in America, you use the non-American convention. Not only is it confusing, it's kinda obnoxious. It's like insisting on calling the theater the theatre, spelling gray with an e, or putting periods and commas outside of quotation marks: nice idea, classier perhaps, but you're in the wrong country. I want to be British too--that doesn't give me license to punctuate or spell as if I were.

*** Even I can see that this is why an America-Germany matchup will just be a train wreck. The Americans will be stubbornly flying all over the pitch wearing themselves out while the Germans very patiently pass the hell out of the ball and dissect their opponents' feeble defense (especially if Howard is out).


Paula said...

Kyle, having been in Europe for the past week I can attest to the fact that "they" are in the grip of World Cup fever. What was most interesting was Germany. They are so happy to have successfully hosted the last World Cup and proudly fly their flags from cars, houses, businesses, etc. They refer to this renewed sense of nationalism as appropriate in light of their "history". You can root for Germany. It's OK.

Maman said...

How lovely! A brainy commentary on a brainy match. I had the same response you did: the "Mannschaft" used their heads as much as their feet, they didn't charge willy-nilly, they constructed and strategized - and got results.
And, by the way, you are an honorary German, you've been adopted, so cheer where your heart (and head) lead you to cheer. It's ok by us ;-)