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Why Soccer Will Never Catch On

by Lewis Krell

This all started because of an innocent little jab at soccer fans two weeks ago in my Jeremy Lin article where I called basketball the beautiful game, not soccer. A few soccer fans -- most noticeably my humble overlord Mike Anton -- did not take kindly to my disparaging remarks about the sport. I felt like now would be a good time to go into some detail about my long-held thoughts about why soccer will never become as big as the other major American sports and to critique its inherent flaws.

So if you came here thinking you would be reading about something relevant in sports like March Madness just around the corner, the NHL and NBA playoff races heating up, something moderately racist about Jeremy Lin, the beginning of Spring Training or the European Greco-Roman wrestling championships (hosted by Serbia this year, beginning March 6th, my DVR is set) then you have come to entirely the wrong place.

There are numerous reasons why soccer has never caught on in America. People throw out their hypotheses about why the beautiful game hasn’t captured our imagination and hearts like it has everywhere else in the world. Many explanations have been brought forward from the most basic, like soccer is "too low scoring" or "too boring," to the more cerebral, citing "American hegemony" and "Imperialist Resistance". Seriously, it’s crazy how many bright people have attacked this subject and it is equally crazy how many different conclusions they have reached.

Some publications believe it’s a by-product of economics; the poorest people in the world seem to be drawn to soccer and Americans quite simply aren’t poor enough. Most agree that American culture just doesn’t fit well with soccer’s ideals. It seems to be a game of the collective over the individual and America loves our superstars. Dave Eggers believes soccer’s lack of popularity coming from the fact that Americans didn’t invent it, it wasn’t homegrown, and it is played throughout America by the youngest and least athletic kids out there, the ones who later in life will be less inclined to care about sports. Chuck Klosterman sees it as a by-product American exceptionalism ("why should I like something because all of Iran and Bhutan does?"). CNN pins it on soccer’s British and colonial roots. All of these are very high concept ideas and all of them are worth discussing. But I believe there are two much simpler and much more fundamental reasons.

The first one stems from the issue of flopping and a lack of toughness. In America, our athletes are the closest thing we have to superheroes and the superpower that the professional athletes we admire the most have is toughness. Nothing is celebrated more than an athlete’s toughness. We remember Michael Jordan playing through a 100º flu to win an NBA Finals game, we remember Sidney Crosby winning a Stanley Cup despite playing the entire playoffs on a broken foot. We marvel at stories like Tony Romo or Tim Tebow playing full NFL games with broken ribs and punctured lungs and we, the viewing public, see yet another example of the difference between our soft, cushy lives and the hell these athletes put themselves through to win (...and to make millions of dollars, but we’ll set that aside for now).

There is no word that is more complimentary to an athlete than toughness. There is no worse thing to be called than soft. If you get a reputation as being soft, it can be nearly impossible to shake and will follow you for your entire career until you do something to change it. Jay Cutler and LaDanian Tomlinson can’t shake the label because fans thought they didn’t try hard enough to play through injuries in the playoffs. They had real injuries that would have put most soccer players in wheelchairs and most ordinary Americans on workers comp for the rest of their days, but they are still vilified to this day by a lot of their team’s fans for not trying harder to get back in the game. This is the stuff American sports fans love. Seeing guys literally leave it all on the field; a reckless disregard for their health and safety. Seeing a soccer player roll around on the field for five minutes acting like he tore his labia majora makes American sports fans sick.

This is soccer’s most fundamental problem. Soccer players are not tough. Soccer players possess a superhuman athletic ability but nothing near the superhuman strength we long for. I’m sure there are exceptions that die-hard soccer fans could point out but I’ve seen Youtube clips of Wayne Rooney diving and I am certain that I have never seen a Youtube clip of a Troy Polamalu or Shawne Merriman type NFL player taking a dive to get a referee to throw a flag. It's completely acceptable to take dives and milk injuries because the incentive to do so is much, much too high.

The worst part of the flopping phenomenon is that it makes perfect sense to flop. In a sport where the majority of games end 1-0, or 2-1, every goal matters. Giving a guy a chance to kick a penalty shot that has an 80% chance of going in is just ludicrous. This is as if every foul in the NBA came with 35 free throws. Or every penalty in hockey gave the opposing team five penalty shots, but before the shot they swapped out the goalie with a quadriplegic midget. By taking a sport where scoring a goal is so insanely difficult and then handing goals out silver platters for penalties, the entire sport becomes ruined. A team could be dominating possession and yet one penalty in the box can instantly give your team a 1-0 deficit. A 1-0 deficit in soccer often feels like the equivalent of 10-run lead in baseball. Sure you could come back, but you probably won’t.

I should state now for the record that I actually do enjoy watching soccer. I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoy watching the other major sports, but soccer has a lot going for it. The anticipation of a goal at any time and the absolutely orgasmic reaction to when a goal is actually scored are enough to keep a lot of people interested. The World Cup is one of the best sporting events in the world and FIFA on Xbox is pretty phenomenal as well, but soccer simply has too many things working against it to ever hit mainstream appeal.

I am not about to suggest soccer should change anything because 3 billion people around the world think it’s perfect the way it is, and I’m not pompous or delusional enough to think soccer should change to become popular in the US. But if Sepp Blatter wants to call me up, I’ll happily lecture him on how his players are perceived as huge pussies and penalty shots are inconceivably illogical.

Image courtesy of Grace's Swim Blog, oddly enough

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Lewis Krell is a Canadian expat and Inclusive staff writer. His work with a more maple leaf-styled slant can be found at Fifty Mission Cap. Contact him at lewis.krell [at]