News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 22, 2010

FROM THE PRESS BOX: No need to testify, soccer won

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Every four years, the (World) cups of soccer fans like me runneth over. Ah, the World Cup. If you’re like me, it’s the greatest four-year sporting event on Earth. It keeps soccer fans at blissfully rapt attention for an entire month.

Every four years, soccer haters enter a kind of nirvana too.

The increased exposure soccer gets during the World Cup creates a predictable counter-attack of criticism heaped upon the sport by those who don’t like it. The World Cup gives it all a focus to reach critical mass.

I’ve heard it all over the years. Soccer is a sissy sport. Soccer is boring. Soccer has a bunch of diving poseurs who play-act their way through a match. Soccer doesn’t have enough scoring. Offsides? How stupid! Soccer makes people talk funny. There’s no such thing as a 1-nil game, it’s 1-zero, and don’t you forget it!

There was a time when this criticism came at you at vuvuzela-like oppressiveness.

Lately, the criticism has morphed, but it’s still there. When confronted with the fact that the World Cup (and soccer in general) is on television and in the media more than its ever been, a common refrain among soccer haters is that, “it’s being shoved down our throats.”

The soccer haters used to bother me.

When I’d hear soccer criticism in the 1980s and 1990s, I’d get on my soapbox and try to slay windmills to let the soccer haters know what they were missing, what they misunderstood, why they should enjoy the sport. I’d testify about the beauty of an event which pits such disparate nations in 11-on-11 competition regardless of their size or their economic or military strength.

In what other sporting event could the United States and Algeria meet as relative equals? I think it’s beautiful.

Of course, that’s exactly what soccer haters hated. Oh you soccer fans, they’d say, stop trying to convert us to your stupid sport.

At some point in the late 90s or early 2000s, I figured it out the angst was unjustified. Maybe it was when every match became televised on national TV. Maybe it was when World Cup finals became Page 1 news in regal publications like the New York Times.

There’s no need to proselytize the good of soccer anymore. People have gradually figured out how great an event it is on their own.

The exposure the World Cup gets has increased dramatically in my lifetime. As a pre-teen, I used to watch matches on Spanish-language television out of Chicago. The only domestic broadcast was the final, and I’m not even sure it was shown live.

In 2010, ESPN treats the event with the respect and the magnitude it deserves. World Cup stories, especially those involving the U.S. national team, are front-page news in an increasing amount of markets. Coverage has been wall-to-wall.

As this has happened, the animosity towards soccer among casual sports fans has diminished. No one needs to explain what the World Cup is anymore or how it works. It’s accepted as an event that walks hand-in-hand with the Olympic Games.

The proof was in the pudding again last Friday. When the U.S. had a late goal disallowed by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly in what should have been a thrilling come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Slovenia, soccer fans like me howled at how unjust that call was. Five days later, I still feel like it was one of the worst calls in any sporting event I’ve watched in my lifetime.

What was heartening, in a way, is that much of America howled right with the soccer fans, whether they paid attention to the World Cup or not. The call was front page news. Coulibaly will live in infamy, but turning the U.S. national team into sympathetic victims (instead of a team that concedes goals way too easily) actually did a lot to increase exposure of the sport even more so than it was already getting.

Everyone loves someone who’s been done wrong. It makes today’s U.S.-Algeria match even bigger than it already was. Non-soccer fans will be in front of television sets to see if the U.S. will move on or be unjustly eliminated. Bars in major cities will be packed. As it all plays out, the World Cup bleeds into our collective consciousness more and more.

Soccer isn’t perfect. Yes, diving is asinine. It’s gamesmanship taken to an extreme not seen in most of our domestic sports. Scoring? I love goals, but I love the quest for goals too. I like the fact that it’s hard to do.

Oops. There I go preaching again ... there’s no need to do that anymore. The soccer haters can hate on, but the fact is ...

Soccer won.



Todd Golden is sports editor of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Check out Golden’s blog at blogs.tribstar.com/downinthevalley.