The Agony of the Cleats

..in which Ashley the American is puzzled by European Fußbol


We’ve all endured (or enjoyed, in some cases) a year with little or no sports action. In honor of those sports enthusiasts around the world banded together in communal longing, I present this essay from 2014, in which the finer elements of European soccer are, if not celebrated, at least acknowledged with a certain awe.

As of this writing, the United States soccer team has been eliminated from the 2014 World Cup competition. This leaves the usual futbol suspects like Germany and Brazil to stomp each other’s toes in a quest for glory, and it means Americans can officially go back to not caring about soccer. We can feel relieved about this since, as I understand it, the World Cup matches will continue for at least the next eight months (with additional time added, depending on penalties and injuries) – or maybe it just feels that long.

     I’m no sports fan. I am one of the hopeless dorks to whom any organized game of ball handling will always appear as a blur of meaningless motion and Nuremburgian chanting. I don’t know a foul line from a free-throw line. However, having grown up in the shadow of our slamdunk culture, my sensibilities have been sufficiently Americanized so that I can see the basic problems U.S. fans might have with the rest of the globe’s holiest of sports. I may not like McDonald’s, but I get why Big Mac eaters don’t eat bangers and mash.

     It’s true that America suffers from a knee-jerk isolationism where foreign cultures are concerned. Personally, I see the World Cup as a transoceanic conflict, in which America should not intervene. National pride is at stake with the World Cup. Grievances over post-war treaties and trade agreements going back to the Diet of Worms feature in the fervor of international soccer rivalries. It goes much deeper than American sports fandom, where we simply choose which team colors are the prettiest.

     The irony is that these age-old grudges of warring nations are being played out with such a tepid, pastoral sport. This, I believe, is why soccer fans are known to riot in the streets: The game itself simply isn’t violent enough to satisfy. But curiously, America has had little success exporting our patented brand of ultra-destructive sporting events elsewhere in the world. Our monster truck rallies, NASCAR explosions, and Ultimate Fighting Championships never catch on in Nigeria or Tel Aviv. Go ahead, just try to find a WWF cage match anywhere in Switzerland.

     Americans crave aggression in their sports. Look, I know we still love boring old baseball, because of grandpa and Hank Arron and Lou Gehrig’s speech when he landed on the moon, but we all know that isn’t really the Great American Pastime. It’s football! Good old, two-fisted, bone-crunching, concussion-riddled, NFL-style football, snuffing out the careers and general health of its young players within the first quarter of their first professional games. By this standard of steroid-fueled brutality, the basic objective of soccer is simply not hazardous enough for most Americans.

     The essential problem is obvious: Americans can’t handle the no-hands thing. The players knock the ball around with kicks and head-butts in perplexing denial of the opposable thumbs passed down from our prehistoric kin, looking like dolphins at Sea World. We can’t imagine Knute Rockne flailing about this way. It simply doesn’t fit our profile of rational sporting behavior. At no point is Lionel Messi going to do the reasonable thing and just pick up the ball to run for a touchdown.

     This is why World Cup fans can become ecstatic on the rare occasion a goal is scored in soccer. The challenge of maneuvering a ball into a net using only feet and heads is like trying to eat pudding with chopsticks and dislocated thumbs. Finally reaching the goal can seem like a beautiful victory after all that handicapped effort. The result is a match with little or no scores, something else unsatisfactory to the American sports fan accustomed to 437:383 wins in basketball (the soccer of quadrupeds).

     All this running and diving for the ball can result in injury, of course, and this illuminates another notable difference in our respective footballs. American players are encouraged to stifle their reactions to their fractured vertebrae and snapped femurs on the field. This is in keeping with the mythology of American manliness, like the boxer who bravely returns to the fight instead of staying on the mat to look for his teeth. With soccer, there is a strategy in convincing referee officials that an injury warrants a penalty, so the players are prone to elevating their scrapped shins to the level of Shakespearian agony. With enough writhing drama, an injured player might even summon the shallow, orange coffin FIFA uses as a stretcher, as if the wing-back is being taken directly to his funeral.

     Don’t get me wrong, soccer has its share of serious, crippling injuries (this year’s World Cup featured a very bad spinal injury and even a Tysonesque biting incident), and anyone who has tripped over the coffee table on the way to the toilet knows how painful even the simplest shin smack can be. But this expression of collapsed anguish doesn’t seem limited to boo-boos. Soccer players often fall on their backs in grief when the opposing team scores a goal. At the end of a match, losing teams often look like war casualties, strewn across the field of battle, pounding the astroturf in misery over their defeat. Crying! I’ve seen actual crying! In the case of the French team, it’s difficult to tell if a player has been injured or is simply overcome with ennui.

     It could be argued that this emotionalism simply means other nations express their passion for football more fervently than we do. But here’s how I know soccer fans don’t take their sport as seriously as they pretend: There’s no halftime show. There are no cheerleaders, no marching bands forming team logos, no one getting shot out of a cannon, no floats celebrating holidays, no wardrobe malfunctions. How can Americans gain respect for the World Cup when it features no Beyonces or Timberlakes before the second half? They don’t even debut exclusive Budweiser or Speed Stick commercials. It’s almost like they WANT us to ignore their sport!

     And well, ignore it we do. With the US team out of the World Cup, Americans return to their comfortable Cotton Bowls and Indy 500s, relieved that they no longer have to watch guys run around in gym shorts. But soccer obsessives around the world who berate us for our ignorance should take heart; there are some cultural pastimes which Americans have embraced with gusto. We’re rather fond of Cinco de Mayo and Oktoberfest, for example. And closer to the point, we do enjoy a rollicking game of foosball on occasion when the spirits have moved us.

     Baby steps.