The year was 1994 and America was getting ready to host FIFA World Soccer Cup. The United States Soccer Federation tried hard to popularize the sport, which dominates the rest of the world. The professional broadcasters wanted to use complicated statistics to enhance the appeal to the fans. Percentages, ratios, and indexes, the same type of data which they so successfully used in baseball, basketball, and football. Then one of the English journalists came from the Old Continent and explained the essence of soccer. All the numbers don’t count. One either like it or not. If you don’t––no numbers will change your mind. If you do––statistics don’t matter.
All over the world, the people love soccer. And they pay the brightest stars well. The first and third spots on the highest salary list hold soccer players, separated only by James LeBron. I don’t give their names since most people in this country wouldn’t recognize their names anyhow. Around the world, soccer has 4 billion fans against 500 million for the most popular in the USA baseball.
I have a personal way to look at soccer. For me watching soccer is like watching the opera. One has to suspend disbelief and look for the beauty. And to express beauty in numbers is impossible.
I remember the first opera I watched while a student at my music school. Ten years old, I didn’t want to go, but tickets were free and Sunday matinee was an otherwise attractive proposition. Warsaw Opera staged Aida. The young Ethiopian princess, in the story a beautiful teenager, was played by an overweight and middleaged soprano. The first visual impression was so discouraging that I even don’t remember the music. My interest in opera ended before even started for good.
But then I grew up. I got into the music, watched the performances and appreciated the beauty of human voice. It stopped bothering me when stabbed hero or heroine sang for quite a long time before final demise. And I saw through the often cheezy plots dealing with the timeless drama of love, betrayal, and greed.
But now opera is my most favorite musical form. I know that it’s cheezy, fake and unrealistic. It doesn’t matter. I see the beauty in music and ageless traits of human nature.
Now, look at soccer.
The drama is there. And even better, because is not scripted.
Corruption is exorbitant. The fighting of this plague is more difficult since this sport crosses virtually all governmental jurisdictions in the world, and every country and its brother has its own soccer federation. Grant Wahl blew the whistle and the highest soccer officials had to resign an/or went to prison. The referees were shot over the blown calls and the soccer stars ended up in disgrace after they didn’t score in seemingly no-lose opportunities.
But then comes the beauty of this sport.
Modern soccer stardom starts with Pele. Watch him passing a slew of defenders. The commentary is really necessary.
His career equaled these of Babe Ruth and Wayne Gretzky. At the end, Pele left Brasilian Santos and signed with New York Cosmos. The move equaled Ruth’s transfer to New York or Gretzky’s to Los Angeles. But this didn’t improve appreciably the popularity of soccer in this country.
Then there was Garrincha. Pele’s contemporary, he almost equaled his fame, but the drinking problem cut his career short. Please look at his knee. Right valus left vargus. How can you play professional soccer with this type of malformation? But he did.
Then came an improbable career of David Becker, who, like Pele moved to this country to excite general public. The results generally were meager.
We in Poland had our time of glory, with Kazimierz Dayna being our arguably best player. I remember these times well. Not known for being hot-blooded, Poles threw out TV sets through the window of the apartment during the losing match. And yes, we had our share of corruption with some 200 players, referees and officials arrested in 2009. Only 15 of referees remained to preside over the skeletonized league.
Is soccer incompatible with the American culture? It’s hard to say. There are many perceived reasons. The slow pace of the game––but what’s slower than baseball? Low scoring––some of the baseball and hockey games end up with low single-digit scores, too. Ties––possible. But probably the most important reason is the fact that Americans are not good at soccer.
Recent soccer news:
1. team USA didn’t qualify to World Cup tournament in Moscow. The tie with Trinidad-Tobago team would let them travel. They lost 2:1.
2. Ghana just dissolved its Football Association because of rampant corruption.