By David Hebestreit
David Hebestreit is a soccer coach and teacher in Michigan. He is currently working toward an MFA in creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.
Recently I was in Pequot Lakes, Minn., and wanted to watch a quarterfinal match of the European Championship of soccer pitting England vs. Italy. So I ventured into a neighborhood bar for the 1:45 p.m. kickoff.
I ordered a drink and asked for a menu, but when I asked the bartender if it was possible to change one of the nine televisions to the game, he turned to the other patron in the bar and scoffed, "Not another one of you soccer fairies," and walked away from me.
This sentiment I have met with often throughout America and know that it is generally a result of a lack of exposure to the game of soccer itself, rather than someone believing that all soccer enthusiasts are figments of imagination ... or worse.
When I asked the bartender why he felt that way about the sport, he replied, "Because it's like watching paint dry." Now, I doubt he has ever actually watched paint dry. And I figured he had never sat and watched a soccer game either.
It's understandable that those who grew up watching and playing football, hockey or baseball could find soccer abstract. Even boring. Football and baseball are scripted sports. They require vast amounts of set information before anyone even takes the field. In football, for instance, entire quarters of a team's game plan are set forth and go unchanged irrespective of the circumstances. And the action stops frequently for commercials and commentary.
Soccer is very different. It is about improvisation, and there are few stops in the action. The sport even transcends the intrusive industry of advertising, which gets time only at an interval between two 45-minute halves.
While most American sports praise runs, points and touchdowns, spectators at a soccer match will often applaud when the ball is nowhere near either goal and it appears nothing has happened. They commend seemingly innocuous moments like a player getting out of a tight space, as though stepping out of a throng of people at a bus stop, or when a team switches the point of attack quickly, moving the ball from one side of the field to the other with only a few touches.
Sure, goal scoring is an attractive part of the sport, but it is the elements that lead up to goal scoring opportunities — improvisation, athleticism and stamina — that are so much the fabric of the game. And it is only by understanding this that a viewer can appreciate the complexity, and therefore beauty, of the sport.
While there will always be aspects of the world that we don't understand, things that strike us as odd at first, it is important that we show compassion for diversity in the world and provide a platform for understanding — be it about people, sports or religion, to name just a few.
Maybe it is simply a mark of our culture that soccer isn't getting its share of media coverage. That's strange because, as it stands, soccer is the largest-participation sport among youths in the nation, and growing in participation among adults. Kids enjoy it because there is constant involvement, creativity and individuality, not to mention that they don't have to wait in line for a couple of swings of a bat.
Maybe we aren't ready for the improvisation that exists in the sport. Certainly we are eliminating it from our schools and workplaces. If so, we may never identify with the sport as a culture. And the rest of the world will go on thinking, "How can a country with 270 million people not be better at it?"
And why does this matter now?
It matters now because the American men's team failed to qualify for the coming Summer Olympics. In a qualifying region deemed weak, we did not make the cut.
This will set back not only the players and coaches on the men's Olympic team several years, but also the sport as a whole in our country.
And it gives rise to more people like the bartender I met in Pequot Lakes, bashing a sport and people he knows little about.