Part of me feels annoyed when I look at this cartoon. It assumes that every American is bored by the game of soccer/football, which is obviously untrue. As much as ESPN may be hawking and exaggerating the overall effect, it is true that soccer/football is gaining popularity here in the States. If there’s anything I like about this cartoon, though, it’s the idea that the sociopolitical element is completely subverted in favor of a value judgment. The soccer/football player frames the sport as primarily a cultural or linguistic product, and the American’s response unveils the needless artificiality therein. It’s that idea I’ll be discussing today – the idea that soccer/football is first and foremost a sport, and that all its geopolitical entanglements only limit our ability to evaluate the game.
There are plenty of angles to start with, of course, but the best place to begin is the name.
1. The name of the sport should be used to relay information, and not to communicate any sort of social, cultural, ideological, or geopolitical viewpoint.
I think everyone understands by now that soccer is virtually a term used only in America. When we were in second grade, this was almost like a trivia item – ‘Did you know that soccer is called football in England?’ In 2015, though, this is pretty common knowledge. And of course, it doesn’t only apply to England.
What’s really odd, though, is how the Difference-of-Name has actually begun to bother some people. I recall one macro image, for example, in which an indignant soccer ball cried out to an American football, ‘Find your own name!’ Moreover, the term soccer is sometimes treated with contempt and mockery. Certain English commentators, if I’m not mistaken, treat the word as if it’s some kind of cultural handicap: ‘Ha! You Americans use the term soccer! What’s wrong with you people?’
Guess what? When it comes to the terms soccer and football, both are useful terms.
Football is useful because:
a. this term is a decidedly accurate description of the general game-play
b. this term (or some linguistic variation) is used in the majority of global nations
Soccer is useful because:
a. it is a long-standing British term which originally referred to Association Football
b. it prevents unwanted confusion (particularly in the U.S.) between soccer-football and American football
The term soccer does not exist as a symbol of geopolitical defiance, nor are those who use the term typically ignorant of the alternate name.
On one hand, the term soccer still existed in England for the better part of the twentieth century – therefore the idea that soccer is an American invention is nothing short of an old wives’ tale. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that this is a ‘stubborn America’ issue – that America should ‘adapt’ by phasing out the term soccer – needs to remember that there would be needless confusion with regard to American football. It would be like saying, ‘The nation of Mexico must adapt, and start using the English word see instead of ver!’ Besides how utterly presumptuous that would be, it would also be inconsiderate toward the potential confusion between see and sí. Therefore it is not stubbornness or ignorance which lets the term soccer survive in America – again, most people know by now that the term football is much more common – rather, it is practicality.
When someone calls the sport soccer, then, try and remember this: It is needlessly close-minded and combative to argue over what term they should be using instead. Think of it like this: A French-speaker approaches an English-speaker and says to them, ‘Bonjour!’ It would be incredibly unnecessary for the English-speaker to reply, ‘You are the only country in the world that has developed the term Bonjour! How dare you use such an unconventional phrase!’ With soccer/football, it is the same; the name of the game should summon the concept of the sport without inviting any sort of cultural/geopolitical criticism.
But I’m sad to say that the issue extends far beyond the name of the sport:
2. Any judgment concerning the game of soccer/football applies merely to the sport itself; it is not a comment on any sort of cultural or geopolitical issue.
Unfortunately, our society seems to have bought into this tiresome philosophy: ‘If you decide you aren’t interested in the game of soccer/football, it means you are xenophobic – too stubborn and close-minded to enjoy something culturally different.’ Maybe if there were someone who refused to watch a single minute of soccer/football on television (simply because it was unfamiliar), then this philosophy might apply. If we’re being intelligent and realistic, however, we know that isn’t what people mean when they say they don’t enjoy soccer/football. They’re making a judgment about the game, and saying (in so many words), ‘The game of soccer/football is a relatively uninteresting procedure.’
If this were a doctoral dissertation, I would probably conduct a statewide survey to illustrate the idea. Since this is a blog post, though, I’ll give you my own personal analysis of the sport:
I believe that the game of soccer/football is relatively uninteresting. The top-tier players clearly exhibit impressive athleticism, but essentially, the game itself provides a lackluster showcase for their skill-set. The most ‘exciting’ plays are often those where the athletes maneuver the ball past their opponents; unfortunately, the vast majority of these plays do not culminate in a direct scoring attempt (and most often, are eventually followed by a change of possession). The result is that even the athletes’ more impressive motions are usually without significant consequence. While successful goals are often entertaining (and sometimes spectacular), these goals do not occur commonly enough to enrich the suspense of the overall game-play. Essentially, the extended periods of inconsequential activity (as well as the fluid alteration of ball-possession) limit the game’s ability to demand attention and/or engagement. I watch the World Cup every four years to follow the interesting playoff narrative, but as for the sport itself, it provides little in the way of entertainment.Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to convince you that soccer/football is uninteresting. I have plenty of friends who truly enjoy soccer/football, and I respect their individual tastes. I’ve only written that paragraph to illustrate the nature of sports-related judgments – judgments apply only to the game. Did I mention anywhere that soccer/football is uninteresting because it is popular in Europe? – Did I ever say that soccer/football was unwelcome in America? – Was there any comparison between soccer/football and more ‘Americanized’ sports? No, no, and no. The judgments relate to the game, and everyone should be free to make those judgments. Picture it this way: Someone says they don’t want any rice with their dinner, because they aren’t very fond of rice. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if someone replied, ‘Aha! So you disapprove of Eastern culture, eh?’ Not only would that be absurd, but you would also probably be suspicious about the cultural attitude of the person who said it.
I already know how some people would respond, though: ‘You may think that your judgment is based on the sport, but your judgment is actually a result of American indoctrination. Without being surrounded by a xenophobic American culture, you would have no notion that soccer/football is any less interesting than other sports.’
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Now once again, if I were submitting this post as an article for an academic journal, I would conduct some sort of sociological research. But for the purpose of this blog post, I can look to myself for the counterargument; essentially, I am Walking Disproof of the ‘You’re-Bored-Because-It’s-Foreign’ argument.
How? Well, I look to the game of Rugby. Growing up, I had never even heard of Rugby. It wasn’t like soccer, which was part of every school’s athletic program; it was a totally foreign product. I think I first saw a game of Rugby when I was a High School Freshman – before then, it was nothing more than a rarely-heard encyclopedia term. But when I saw it, I sort of fell in love with it.
Rugby is fast, tense, and exciting. Not every possession results in a score, but even the less eventful possessions are marked by fast pace, hard hits, and desperate scrambles. The players tend to converge on the ball, giving the sport a highly contingent narrative centered around the game-play’s nucleus. If a player can get a solid run headed into the open field, there’s enough risk and variability that the game-play is suspenseful as a result.
At least in my case, then – and I imagine in others’ – the ‘Foreign = Boring’ rule holds no water. I don’t find soccer/football uninteresting because of its cultural context; I find it uninteresting because of what happens on the field. The judgment of sports, then, should be entirely separate from the geopolitical landscape – and we shouldn’t resent people’s feelings on soccer/football any more than we should resent what someone’s favorite color is.
What’s really funny is this: Xenophobia toward American football seems to be encouraged and celebrated here in the States. ‘Pah! American football,’ people will say. ‘Just a stubborn little American habit – nothing interesting about it at all.’ These are the same people who like to remind us (and flaunt before us) that ‘Soccer is the world’s most popular sport!’ Interestingly, their own logic suggests that they’re the xenophobic ones. If American football is so different – so quaint and unusual when weighed against other global hobbies – then doesn’t an aversion to American football suggest sticking within the global comfort zone? – that is, refusing to enjoy something only because it is culturally unfamiliar? It’s almost like going to the obscure village of North Ninsasprinsapo, and eating some food you have never heard of before: roast baganakwan. You taste it, dislike it, and then say ‘How close-minded the people of this village are! They eat this peculiar food, and don’t eat what the rest of the world eats!’ What you’re really doing is proving how close-minded you are. If you’re desperate to prove how sensible ‘the rest of the world’ is, you’ve obviously got a problem accepting your own surroundings. This is ultimately why we should refrain from entangling our sports-related judgments with the sociopolitical climate – an inability to distinguish these concepts is a kind of stubbornness in itself.
That’s probably a good stopping point, even though there are plenty of other things to say. If I had another blog post to write, I might explore why people treat soccer/football as such a competitive force with other sports, when really we are free to love any number of games without needing a competitive hierarchy. I think that is a blog post for another day, though. And for now, I leave you with the immortal words of Sigmund Freud, who reminds: ‘Sometimes a soccer ball is just a soccer ball.’