Leonard P. Oliver
Oliver Associates, Washington, DC
Originally published as a chapter in “Cultural Dimensions of Play, Games and Sport” (Ed. Bernard Mergen, Ph.D. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc., 1986). Reprinted by permission of the author.
The rapid growth of soccer in America, particularly at the youth level, is a cultural phenomenon-an exceptional and significant occurrence that is only now being recognized, analyzed, and interpreted by those who follow sport. Soccer holds promise of affecting our characters, our families, our communities, our country, and perhaps one day, our international relations. “The game that never sleeps” is here, and my purpose is to examine its implications for our culture, just as it influences cultures around the world.
The statistics are staggering. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) formally registered its one millionth youngster in 1983. It is estimated that 8 million Americans play soccer at all levels, with 3 million youngsters under 10 playing competitively. The YMCA reports soccer as its largest team sport, with 400,000 boys and girls participating through 900 YMCAs. In the metropolitan Washington, DC, area, 75,000 boys and girls are on organized teams, the Long Island Soccer League has 62,000 youngsters registered, Illinois reported 9,000 registered young players in 1977 and 46,000 in 1983, and high schools like Centerville in Ohio regularly draw 4,000 fans to a game. The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport reports that soccer is the fastest growing high school sport in the nation. There are 532 colleges with intercollegiate varsity soccer (502 colleges field football teams) and leading soccer schools like the University of San Francisco, Indiana University, and Penn State University attract 7,000 to 10,000 spectators at home games. [Editor’s note: By 1998, over 17 million Americans played soccer at all levels, with nearly 800 men’s and 800 women’s varsity college teams, over 8,000,000 youth participants.]
Unfortunately, this growth and participation are often ignored or overshadowed by the media’s barometer of the value of a sport in our country, the strength of the professional franchises, and here we are hurting. The North American Soccer League (NASL), now defunct, lost 20 to 25 million dollars in its last year of operation. Still, in spite of the NASL’s woes, there are 36 indoor and outdoor professional soccer franchises in our country. [over 70 by 2000 – Ed.]
Beyond the statistics and the poor-cousin image portrayed by the media, I look at another national barometer-Madison Avenue. We see Ricky Davis, formerly with the Cosmos, bathing with Ivory Soap after performing an acrobatic bicycle kick, Prudential advertising family protection with a distinctive soccer ball on the front lawn (the black and white ball arrived in 1964-the “TV ball”-invented in Germany and giving soccer its identifying trademark), soccer players downing Pepsi after a workout, and little tykes clambering into a Peugeot after a game-all 14! Even if the media sports desks do not know where the fans are, you can bet Madison Avenue’s market surveys do.
I grew up with soccer in the streets of Philadelphia, taught by an immigrant Scottish father, and I can remember endless conversations beginning, “So you’re a soccer player-how is it played?” and ending, “But it’s still a foreign sport!” Standing outside a Sao Paulo stadium signing autographs at the Pan Am Games in 1963, or being greeted by the town’s youngsters after a game with my Bavarian town team, Bad Aibling, durzzz
ing service days, or seeing Pele make his debut at the World Cup in Sweden in 1958-I always felt more at home abroad as a soccer player.
That has changed in just a generation. Now everybody talks soccer, coaches, or has a kid playing in towns where some people have never seen a professional game or kicked a ball themselves.
Unfortunately, all of this soccer interest and participation has not translated into recognition for soccer nationally, into fan support for the outdoor professional teams, or into a truly competitive international U. S. team. One of the reasons, for example, that the governing board of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) rejected the United States’ bid to host the 1986 World Cup was the perceived lack of commitment to the sport by the American public and those who ran the professional teams.
One unanswered question, therefore, is when (and if-if you listen to the cynics) the mass participation of young people in soccer will produce the fans for the professional teams. Beyond this obvious question, there are many more subtle issues related to the constraints on the growth of soccer in America, factors fueling the surge, and the potential influence of soccer on our culture.
Because there are few rigorous, analytical studies of soccer in America, with most books written by coaches stressing how to play or by feature writers unfamiliar with the nuances of the game, I will attempt a thoughtful, albeit intuitive analysis of some issues related to soccer in America.
A Brief History
Many newcomers to soccer attribute its kickoff in America to Pele’s signing with the Cosmos for 3 years and $3.5 million in 1975-admittedly a dramatic event that captured the attention of the world’s sporting community. Others go back to 1966, when the heart-throbbing World Cup final of England versus West Germany was telecast live to the United States from London, an event that aroused the interest of the business community because of the unexpectedly high Nielsen rating. Some oldtimers go back to 1950, when the United States National Team, composed mainly of amateurs, upset England 1 to 0 in a game still referred to as “the biggest upset in soccer history.” But soccer has been around in America for over 200 years. It was brought over by English colonists, played more formally and rather brutally by colleges starting in the mid-1800s (Princeton and Rutgers played an inaugural intercollegiate match in 1869), and then given strong impetus, at least in our northeastern urban areas, by the waves of immigrants who brought their culture, including soccer, with them. Factory teams and local amateur teams, primarily associated with ethnic clubs in the cities, flourished through the 1930s. For example, I spent 5 years playing top-class amateur soccer with the Kensington Blue Bells in Philadelphia, a club founded in the early 1900s by Scottish immigrants.
So there is a history of soccer in America, one that is interconnected with the lives of working-class people, but it remains for the most part undocumented. With the new interest in social and working-class history, perhaps soccer’s link with its ethnic roots will unfold.
The history of soccer itself has been the subject of long debate. As a boy, I used to hear folklore stories from my father of English workmen in the 11th century digging in an old battlefield and uncovering the skull of a Danish soldier. Since the Danish had recently occupied England, the workers vented their feelings by kicking the skull around-the first soccer ball.
Actually, football games (as soccer is known in the rest of the world) have been documented in the writings of the Chinese as early as 80 B.C., and soccer-like games have been appearing in literature ever since. The game was often banned in England for its violence, as whole towns in the Middle Ages occasionally went at it with a large ball. But it was in the 1860s in England that the “kicking game” was separated from the “game with hands,” with rugby and soccer emerging from the same egg.
The Football Association was formed in England in 1863 (the world soccer comes from an abbreviation for “association”) and codified the rules of the game, thus beginning the modern era of soccer. British sailors, merchants, factory workers, and schoolboys subsequently carried soccer to Brazil, Russia, Germany, the United States, and other nations as the Empire expanded, although it did not catch on in major English territories such as Canada, Australia, and India. Once introduced in most countries, however, soccer developed rapidly until today there are 175 soccer-playing nations, more than are in the United Nations, each with its distinct approach to the game.
The International Culture of Soccer
Soccer in many countries cannot be understood apart from the country’s culture, traditions, class structure, geography, and values. Soccer reflects a nation’s culture because it permeates all levels of a society. There are probably climatic reasons why South Americans in their warm climate play at a different pace than the English, who play right through the winter and have to keep running to combat the cold. Brazilian soccer, so well documented by Janet Lever (1983) in Soccer Madness, is “alegre,” soccer to a Samba beat-joyous, unpredictable, spontaneous, “poetry and motion.” (A Sao Paulo psychologist once observed that Brazilians have lost their self-esteem, and “soccer comes in as a saving element-the sensation of taking part in a collective undertaking . . . rich in emotions” [Hoge, 1982, p. A-2].)
England’s “Dunkirk style” is tenacious, with hard tackling, fairness, and a “let’s-get-the-job-done” attitude. West Germany’s highly disciplined, mechanistic, orderly “systems soccer” was called by Pele on TV in 1982 “ten robots alongside Rummenigge” (Europe’s “player of the year”). The superbly conditioned Soviets engage in “technical soccer,” by the book, but often fail against the flamboyant South Americans and the gritty, determined English. Italians may learn acting before soccer, treating the sport (as in most Latin-language countries) as a matter of life and death. In fact, one Italian coach was overheard to remark that “some say football is a matter of life and death. Well it isn’t-it’s more important than that!” Giovanni Arpino (1982), an Italian novelist, describes why the Italians won the World Cup in 1982:
“They won because they knew what Italians abroad must do, . . . like the people from Calabria, from Basilicata, like the Venetians, the Piedmontese who had to face the unknown awaiting them in New York, in the Pampas, in the steppes, in deserts, or when they had to build a dam or a bridge . . . . In their veins and brains they found the winning spur before feeling it in their muscles.” (p. 2)
Culture and Soccer in the United States
The idea of soccer being a national cultural phenomenon in the United States is only now creeping into our collective psyche as soccer spreads into our middle-class structure and into our playing fields that just a few years ago exhibited football goal posts. Until the early 1970s, soccer had been the province of ethnic groups, with the St. Louis CYOs, some prep schools, urban high schools, and colleges displaying home-grown talent. Today, soccer is rapidly becoming white, middle-class, suburban, and small town, if we look at the areas of most dramatic growth. The Milwaukee Sentinel (November 9, 1983), for example, recently reported that “soccer is in vogue for youngsters. It has the station wagon, hand-knit sweater sort of panache usually associated with polo.”
Given our nation’s multicultural mix, it would be interesting to analyze our distinct approach to soccer, our “American style,” and entertain some speculations on what style of international soccer we can look forward to once we become truly competitive with other nations. Just as soccer has permeated other cultures, it holds the potential of affecting ours, although there are some deeply ingrained constraints to its growth in our country.
Constraints on Soccer’s Growth
Lack of a Recognized, Americanized Professional League
Kids need heroes-we all know this from our own childhoods. And my heroes were professional athletes in soccer and baseball. Similarly, communities need identification with their professional franchises if they hope to attract sustained fan support. American kids need American heroes. We have them in baseball, football, and basketball, but not yet in soccer.
Since 1968, when the NASL was founded, professional soccer owners and coaches have emphasized foreign talent- overaged, often slow, uninspiring, ex-internationals with no stake in the American game or building community loyalties. As a token to young American players, the NASL required 2 or 3 Americans on the field at all times, and former and foreign coaches complained that they could not field their best 11 players. Entertainment was placed by the owners before building the sport, and city by city, foreign stars are still being signed for the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL).
Because of the chaos in the NASL and professional soccer in general, we are a soccer yearling, a failure in the world’s eyes as evidenced by our ill-fated bid for the 1986 World Cup. Our “American delegation” included Kissinger, Pele, and Beckenbauer-no local officials who could talk about the growth of soccer in their communities, no youth leaders-and we were rejected. Soccer is also a failure in the media’s all-encompassing perspective, particularly television’s, but it extends to print journalism also. Because of the media’s influence on the public, general public perception outside of soccer players, promoters, and administrators-is that soccer has not yet permeated our society and perhaps never will. We are in a Catch-22: the media do not promote soccer, the fans don’t come out, and the media can claim it was doomed.
In the meantime, we have tampered with the rules to “Americanize” soccer (the NASL initiated a 35-yard line for offsides and “shootouts” to satisfy the so-called American penchant for scoring and results-we would widen the goals if we could), just to be brought up short by FIFA sanctions. The only professional soccer franchises making it are the indoor teams in the MISL. Indoor soccer is a mutation of soccer, with human “pinballs,” hockey’s dasher boards and plays, football’s razzmatazz, Star Wars-like introductions, and unlimited substitution. There is scoring and nonstop action, and indoor soccer crowds are outdrawing hockey and basketball in St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, and other cities. The teams play mostly Americans. But all the hoopla, all the skydivers, the marching bands, and the Frisbee-catching dogs that have been employed by professional soccer teams will not create a truly American, internationally recognized professional league until communities adopt professional soccer teams and until young Americans see professional soccer as a career option just as they do other pro sports.
Media Coverage and Public Misunderstanding
As indicated before, the media, print and video, have sorely shortchanged soccer. Marv Albert, NBC sportscaster, is unimpressed with soccer: “My kids play soccer, but as a spectator sport, it has minimal meaning here. Its stats and players have no significance” (Fischler, 1984, p. 133). The same article quotes the New York Times saying it would like to cover soccer, “but we don’t have the space.”
The media have had an opportunity to educate the American public on the “world’s sport,” yet they have failed to grasp the essence, the nuances of the game. Prejudiced by the rules, language, and principles of other professional sports, and imbued with a false sense that what Americans want in their sports is violence, statistics, and scoring, the sportscasters have tended to deride soccer as boring, unimaginative, slow, and unexciting. It is like going to a bullfight and looking only for the kill, the final act, and missing the paseillo and all that follows. Or going to a ballet and waiting for a spectacular grande jete rather than enjoying the preceding movements.
Let me offer some graphic examples. Whereas Newsweek described the 1982 World Cup by the number of journalists (8,000), the English hooligans, and the Brazilians’ four Samba orchestras, Giovanni Arpino (1982) described the 1982 World Cup as “lung-consuming, heartbreaking, with a great inner strength and . . . a few geo-political quarrels,” and the Italian players as “slippery like Rossi, ” “elegant and ironmade like Scirea,” or “unyielding like Zoff” (p. 1). Norman Fox (1978) of the London Times described the setting of the 1978 World Cup this way: “The giant tiered ground steeply terraced in typically South American style, was bathed in delicate blue, a cascade of streamers, spilling over the balconies.” Fox talked of “fierce, physical pressure” by Holland (Argentina played Holland in the final), of Poortvliet and Haan “making reckless, ominous tackles,” of “forceful interceptions by the Dutch that cut deep into Argentina’s essential speed.” And “none of the players stood back from the toil and speed for long enough to assess the possible alternatives to sheer speed.” On the winning goal by Argentina, he wrote the following:
“Bertoni desperately tried to find him from the left side of the penalty area. In a furious scramble with defenders scurrying to regain possession, Kempes managed artfully to keep the ball and push it in off the Dutchmen around him. “(p. 8)
When we learn to report soccer in this loving, poetic, dramatic fashion, professional soccer will come alive here also. Instead, describing a goal in a highly charged 1982 World Cup semifinal match between Italy and Poland, an American sportswriter said, “In the 22nd minute, the Italians staged one of their patented counterattacks that led to a Polish foul. Then: Antognoni to Cabrini to Rossi in front of the goal and a 1-0 lead for Italy” (Vecsey, 1982, p. 16). Or in reference to an indoor game, “Dipede . . . has logged 365 minutes, a record in the MISL . . . and has a 13-9 record with a 4.70 goals against average” (Covitz, 1984, p. 9). We are looking for stats when we should be looking for style and flair-which of these descriptions would most attract you to the sport?
Lacking an understanding of the flow of play in soccer, we tend to describe scoring opportunities, blatant fouls, and sideline behavior. We call low-scoring soccer games dull, yet a 1 to 0 baseball game is an exquisite pitching/fielding duel. We deride the lack of scoring in soccer, yet a healthy 21 to 14 football score is in reality a 3 to 1 average soccer score. A 135 to 134 professional basketball game is truly boring until the last 5 minutes, or unless you know what to look for in the players’ moves.
Soccer has never made it on commercial television, although ABC has broadcast the Soccer Bowl and the 1982 World Cup final, and NBC is broadcasting seven of the World Cup games from Mexico. Even so, because of interruptions for commercials, most of us watched the World Cup final last year between Italy and West Germany on SIN from Mexico, where commercials came at the beginning, halftime, end, and overlayed without interfering with the flow of play. As one ABC official commented at the time on ABC’s use of two 30-second spots for soccer, “ABC rarely missed a goal.” But a soccer match is not just goals, as Lawrie Mifflin (1982) pointed out on the eve of the 1982 World Cup final:
“A soccer match is like theater, with a main story that also embraces smaller, personal dramas between players facing each other man-to-man, and with a step-by-step denouement. Missing part of the dialogue in a play is not like missing anything “major,” either, but it’s still missing essential ingredients of the story.” (p. 15)
That’s our problem-because of ignorance of the game, our sportscasters continue to look for the wrong thing in soccer. Even television cameramen, in contrast to foreign telecasts of soccer, don’t know what to look for in a match, missing most of the subtle movements “off the ball,” as we say. They focus on either goals or scoring opportunities, and then they deride the sport as dull. I don’t believe the media’s misunderstanding of soccer is fundamentally malicious, but it does relate to ignorance of the sport’s artistry and style.
Entrenchment of Existing Sports
Baseball, football, and basketball still dominate the American professional and amateur sport scene. All are “American” sports, or in the case of baseball and football, derivations of English forerunners. Recall that soccer has not flourished in Canada, with its hockey and Canadian football, or in Australia with its “Australian rules football,” or in India with its field hockey. Similarly, soccer is bucking powerful sport traditions in our country.
From my own coaching, soccer is not competing with basketball for the kids’ time or for indoor facilities (except where indoor youth soccer is taking hold), nor is it competing with high school and college basketball. It is slightly competitive with youth baseball, but only when spring seasons overlap. Besides, baseball and soccer are qualitatively different. Soccer does tend, however, to go head-to-head with football and seems to be pulling ahead dramatically at the youth level. There is obviously no competition at the professional level, although college soccer is replacing football at many smaller, budget-conscious colleges.
My question is, what happens to a sport when its base of good athletes and parental participation dries up? Soccer today resembles a pyramid, with most of the good players still in the youth ranks. Football resembles an inverted pyramid, with the best players in high school, college, or the professional ranks. On Long Island, one recreation director responded to a community’s request to turn a football field over to the soccer program with, “But soccer is not an American sport.” The threat is obvious and strong.
More and more, as kids face a conflict in deciding on team sports to pursue, parents are encouraging soccer over football, at times over baseball. And for girls, soccer has opened up a new team sport option where, in many leagues, they compete on mixed teams until their teens.
Over-coaching, Over-parenting, Over-bearing in a Low-Keyed Sport
This is a sensitive subject. Lee Stern, owner of the Chicago Sting in the NASL, recently observed that “I don’t know what it feels like to kick a soccer ball, but I know how it feels to hit a baseball or shoot a basketball or throw a football. And I probably represent 99% of the male population over 35 in this country” (Mifflin, 1983, p. 12). Few men and almost no women over 35 have ever played soccer, many have never seen top-class competition, yet they are the parents of the budding soccer players. Surprisingly, they are also flocking to “over 35” soccer leagues for their own recreation and fitness goals.
A kid sees a recreation department notice or hears of a team forming, or parents seek out an alternative to football or consider soccer as a team sport for their girls, or a kid is bored with standing in the outfield in baseball but is too small for basketball or football, and soccer has become the option. This has created a problem in coaching and officiating; soccer’s growth has far exceeded the availability of coaches and officials knowledgeable about the game, and uninformed but well-meaning parents have jumped in to fill the void. The fathers tend to apply principles from other, more familiar sports (one football father told me that the three principles of soccer are “run, release, and receive”). The mothers (a phenomenon in itself when one considers that fully 25% to 40% of all youth soccer coaches, administrators, and officials are women), with few prior team sport hang-ups, read a few books and take over teams, leagues, and refereeing. So we face a nation of enthusiastic kids, mothers who transport and coach them, and fathers who still harbor thoughts of their kids executing the pivot at second base or running a buttonhook pattern for a forward pass. What are the implications?
Over-coaching. Some of my fellow junior coaches buy clipboards and stopwatches before they step on a practice field. They read a book and proceed to apply a 4-3-3 or a 3-3-4 with a “sweeper” before they assess the youngsters’ talents. For example, I’ve heard coaches yell, “Kick it harder,” which has no meaning in soccer; or always play the same kid in goal, denying him or her field experience and experimentation with ball control skills at an early age; or bring only one ball to practice, lining up 15 players for shots on goal and letting the rest stand with their hands in their pockets. Each kid on my team has a ball, and I encourage them to fool around, hotdog, show off-after all, soccer brings out individual, personal expression with the ball. Pele’s basic ball control skills were honed on the streets of his village, Tres Coraqoes, in the state of Minas Gerais, on his local “barefoot team.”
In almost all our American team sports, coaches are highly visible and at times dominate play. In contrast, once a soccer game starts, a coach should be invisible to let the players dominate (coaching from the sidelines warrants a “yellow card,” a warning in international play). What a difficult concept for American parents, especially fathers used to taking orders from football coaches or being instructed to steal second base in their playing days.
Over-coaching, too much emphasis on systems, predictable and repetitive moves, physical attributes, or conservative play can conflict with individual development and the free flow of soccer, with creativity, and with the need for each player to assert his or her “soccer personality.” “Play with impudence,” as one of my old coaches used to say. Tim Sheldon (1983), writer for Soccer America, recently pointed out the following:
“I’m convinced that youngsters develop the highest level of skill just by horsing around with a ball by themselves or with friends in the yard or driveway, or sometimes-I shouldn’t say it-in the street.
Without adult interference, they can do, literally, anything they want with the ball. They develop a truly personal relationship with the ball. It becomes part of themselves. Later, in organized games, their movements will be second nature.”
Overbearing coaches get even worse higher up the ladder. I have watched high school and college coaches maintain meaningless statistics and miss the flow of the game; test how high a player can jump and forget that heading the ball, an unusual weapon unique to soccer, is all timing; or so lock their players into set positions that all interchangeability of positions-a characteristic of a good soccer team-is lost.
American-authored books on soccer are starting to appear. Most deal with techniques, not with the artistry of the sport. Go for Goal: Winning Drills and Exercises for Soccer (Ford & Kane, 1984) is a recent addition to my sport library, advertising that it can “improve player performance and increase chances of victory with 120 proven drills with 100 variations.” Think of the matrix a new coach faces as he or she tries to get a 10-yearold to kick with the outstep. There are even 22 drills to learn the soccer laws, yet there are only 17 laws!
Through our over-coaching, through our books, we are trying our best to make a simple game complex, to turn an art form into a science. We are trying to apply coaching controls and authority in a sport that by its nature rewards creativity and individuality, to measure the unmeasurable, and to emphasize technique over feeling.
Over-parenting. Parents new to soccer do not know how to watch the sport. It is a game that brings out emotions, especially when our own children are playing. Spectators around the world get passionate about their teams-witness the moats in South American stadiums, the World Cup fervor, the intense loyalties of afficionados documented so ably by Janet Lever (1983) in Soccer Madness. But children are impressionable, and parents tend to be intense, aggressive, over-involved, even overprotective in a sport for children that they don’t understand. “My kid plays center field,” admitted one father at one of my games, and another so coached his son in goal that the player’s foot got tangled in the net as the other team advanced.
Our culturally acquired “win-at-any-cost” mentality gets in our way with soccer and puts undue pressure on kids out for fun, with parents at times berating their youngsters, insulting referees, and contradicting coaches. In Montgomery County, outside Washington, DC, a cardiologist parent of a 10-year-old player abused the referee unmercifully, approached him on the field during the game, and was subsequently slugged by the official. He sued the official and the judge gave the referee 24 hours of community service. The incident resulted in a code of conduct for parents drawn up by the league.
Soccer has attracted parents who are middle- and upper-middle-class professionals, highly competitive, hard-driving, and who want desperately for their kids to succeed. The problem is endemic and leagues are now taking steps to curb parent overreaction to the sport, advising teams of forfeits unless parents are controlled. Maybe soccer will have a civilizing influence on parents, once they come to understand the subtleties of the sport.
A White Middle Class Sport
Soccer is still a white, suburban, small town or white ethnic, urban sport, with smatterings of Hispanic teams in Spanish-speaking communities. African-American communities and African-American kids around the country, especially in our urban areas, have not yet adopted soccer in a manner similar to their suburban neighbors. There is no expectation of payoff, as there is with basketball or football, so African-American kids are not hungry for soccer.
Few African-American parents know the game. Fields are scarce in inner-city neighborhoods, in contrast to basketball hoops found in every playground, driveway, and alley. And no one has attempted to concentrate resources for the development of soccer leagues, clinics, and administrators for the African-American community.
Yet the potential is there. An American Pele or Eusebio is yet to be discovered, but in working with African-American youngsters in soccer clinics and on my team, I am convinced that someday African-American kids will discover soccer, will excel, will be the “Magic Johnsons” and “Dr. Js” of soccer, and will contribute to our development as a truly competitive soccer nation.
Factors Fueling Soccer’s Growth
Soccer has arrived, at least at the youth-community level, and it may be useful to speculate on some of the factors that are contributing to its acceptance in such a short time span.
Soccer’s Inherent Characteristics
Soccer and individual expression. Soccer is a game for the player, not for the coaches, and this makes it unusually difficult for both coaches and parents who have grown up with other, coach-dominated sports. Manfred Schellscheidt (1983), former U.S. Olympic coach, put it this way:
“I encourage them to express themselves because it is a game of expression, . . . of personality, . . . of character. Once a player has the tools, once he has the physical skill, he must express his personality …. It’s not something you can program, . . . that you can predict …. It’s an instant reaction, the initiative of the player and his reaction to things as they happen. We must encourage the player to take chances, do the unexpected, have courage to take people on and go forward as well as have the discipline that counts . . . when we are in defense.”
Team sports can often be frustrating for youngsters; some never even touch the ball. Yet touching the ball is what sports for kids should be all about. And it is in this regard that soccer, as a team sport, has an advantage over baseball, where the only offensive player is the pitcher and everyone else reacts to his or her moves; and football, where linemen can go through a career without touching the ball. In soccer, each player touches the ball between 20 and 30 times a game, giving each youngster an opportunity to develop his or her own relationship and skills with the ball. For Desmond Morris, a good player “is possessed of spontaneous inventiveness that sets the game alight and wins matches” (Morris, 1981, p. 85). The inventiveness comes in the use of the ball-passing, dribbling, shooting, intercepting-the magic is indeed in the ball.
Soccer’s appeal as a game. As Clay Berling, editor of Soccer America, continually points out, there are two conflicting elements in any sport, its “artistry” and its “competition.” The artistry makes it worth playing and watching, the competition makes it a sport. People seem drawn to soccer because of the artistry in the context of competition. Soccer has been compared to ballet and other forms of dance, and in some countries leading coaches and players actually teach ballet.
Another appealing aspect of soccer is the simplicity of its rules. There are only 17 laws in soccer, relatively unchanged for over 100 years, and immediately intelligible to diverse nations and cultures around the world. Communication in matches between teams of different languages, with the officials speaking a third language, is done through a series of internationally recognized hand signals, a “soccer semaphore.”
Given its simplicity, its artistic nuances, the head-to-head combativeness, and the impossibility of delay (the ball is the focus and always in play), the game moves fast with few frills. Recall the 1982 World Cup Final-10 minutes warm-up, two teams and three officials walk on, two national anthems are played, and then 90 minutes of action. No cheerleaders, no marching bands, no television time-outs, no huddles-just constant action.
In its simplicity as a game, soccer may be at a disadvantage in a society that prides itself on mastering complexity, on having a clear beginning, middle, and resolution (when will we come to realize that a draw is an honorable result, rather than imposing a false victory with an aberration like the “shootout”?). Consider that 11 of the 28 NFL teams now use computers to call plays and set defenses with increasing sophistication and predictability, in direct contrast to soccer’s individual inventiveness and unpredictability.
Physical attributes. Both football and basketball tend to emphasize size and weight, with linemen too big to play tailback and tailbacks too small to play line, with guards too small to play center, and centers too awkward to be point guards. In contrast, soccer does not punish normal-sized people, but rewards skill, balance, intelligence, and stamina, not brute strength or unusual height. The differences in physical size are not pronounced in youngsters playing football and basketball; they become critical as players move on to high school, college, and the pro ranks. Physical size just does not enter into the soccer equation; I’ve seen players a foot shorter than me out-jump me for a head ball. There are no indefensible “slam dunks”-spectacular as they are, they are ruining basketball. As Morris (1981) points out, physical aspects take a back seat to the two essential ingredients of the good soccer player: skill, which makes the player an acrobat with the ball, and fitness, which gives the player an athlete’s body and the stamina for a full match. Add in experience for the understanding of strategy and tactics and a positive mental state for motivation and confidence in him- or herself.
Great physical effort is obviously needed in soccer, with severe demands on muscles, lungs, and the heart. Only a few sports demand more, and all are individual sports (decathlon, handball, marathon, pentathlon, Tour de France, and wrestling). But if soccer succeeds in our country, it will be due as much to the “thinking power” it permits each player as to the players’ physical prowess.
Soccer costs. Growing up in Philadelphia, with no money for shin guards, we used Popular Mechanics magazine to cover our shins. A used, tattered ball and a garage door, and we had a game. Years later I recall alighting from our team bus on a street corner in a small Brazilian town to stretch our legs before a match. A dozen scruffy neighborhood urchins came up and proceeded to take their socks off to stuff them in another sock for a makeshift ball, and to do things with this sock-ball on a stony lot that we hadn’t mastered in all our years of playing.
Costs are already influencing police athletic leagues, Little Leagues, the YMCA, and other community-based organizations to adopt soccer because of its low expense/high participation ratio. Many high schools and colleges, hard-pressed financially, are turning to soccer as an alternative sport program. We can outfit a young soccer player for less than $20, whereas football equipment can run to $250 per player. The inexpensiveness of soccer is not its major attraction for players, but it is for a cost-conscious administrator seeking an alternative to more highly priced athletic programs.
Violence and the fear of serious injury in football. Violence may be as American as apple pie, as H. Rap Brown once said, but parental concern and apprehension about severe injury to young football players is a factor in the turn to soccer. I have broken both legs in soccer and suffered some 40 to 50 stitches from crashing of heads, along with numerous sprains and muscle pulls, in my 20-year active career. I can still, however, throw and kick a ball, run, play tennis, and ride a bicycle, in contrast to some football-playing friends who will never do these activities because of injured shoulders, knees, and backs.
Over one half of football injuries are to the knee, ankle, or shoulder, and 21.3% of these injuries are fractures. In soccer, most injuries are to the foot or lower leg, and few result in fractures (Southmayd & Hoffman, 1981). Players don’t get killed in soccer, but 13 high school football players died in 1984, 4 from directly related football injuries. Many football players are encouraged to “play to hurt” in the heat of competition as a mark of character, but it is almost impossible in soccer because of the nonstop pace and the openness of the game.
With strength and weight coordinators, with bigger, more conditioned, faster players, we are going to see increased football injuries in spite of the excellent advances in equipment. For example, the weekly NFL injury report contains 300 names with 400 injuries, with the most common injury a concussion (defined as a blow to the head), followed by knee injuries. Compare this state with the case of Diego Maradona, formerly of Barcelona’s soccer team, the world’s highest priced player, who suffered severely torn ligaments in his ankle from a vicious tackle by a Bilbao player a few years ago. It was reported that the Barcelona spectators “each died a small death,” the Barcelona papers screamed “The Crime” the next day, with pictures of Maradona on a stretcher, and the offender became known as “the Butcher of Bilbao.” He was suspended for 18 games. Can you imagine the outcry if the NFL took similar action?
We may get some vicarious charge from watching the Sunday afternoon football mayhem, but we sure don’t want our kids playing it. There are signs that the public is starting to react to role-model football players talking about “breaking faces,” or the Raiders’ owner saying, “We take what we want,” or the Washington Federals’ ad, “Wanna Fight?” which teaches both bad grammar and violence. Television ratings for the NFL are down 6 to 20% per game, the colleges down 11% since 1977. One features writer for the Christian Science Monitor observed that “the moments of action to moments between” ratio in football is 1:20 in favor of “still life” and that “a sport that lives on the borderline between boredom and violence has some explaining to do” (Maddocks, 1983, p. 21).
Football coaches are now concerned about the loss of better athletes to soccer, which I heard one describe as “an imported, un-American menace to our youth.” Where soccer is played year-round, it is also cutting into baseball, which has, as one of my young players put it, “the striking out, the sitting on the bench, and the standing around which doesn’t happen in soccer.” The “tidal wave” of young soccer players will eventually have an effect on all our sport programs, with implications for our culture that we cannot even begin to foresee.
Coed soccer and the family context. My two girls, aged 12 and 14, played on my predominantly boys team and held their own. The youngest continues to play and leads our male-dominated team in scoring. The mother of another girl player recalled that she had no team sport options while growing up, other than as a cheerleader or pompon girl, and welcomed the opportunity soccer gave for girls to compete on an equal basis with boys. Up to puberty, girls are often taller, more agile, sometimes faster, and perhaps a little less intensely competitive than boys-all characteristics allowing them to compete in a game that encourages coolness, thinking, body coordination, and stamina rather than size and strength. The implications of this massive entry of girls directly into male team sport have yet to be examined, but it is an area ripe for research.
Concomitantly, soccer has generated family involvement. When a coach is needed, nets have to be put up, or a schedule of team play arranged, mothers have jumped in, read a few books, and carried substantial weight in the sport around the country. When asked about the role of girls playing and mothers participating and the effect on the male ego, I reply that if a person is competent, enthusiastic, and willing to work hard at perfecting soccer skills, then he or she will be accepted regardless of sex. That also applies to life, and the coed soccer revolution may in the long run be a contributing factor to a more accepting, equalitarian society.
The international pressure. America made a serious bid in 1983 to host the 1986 World Cup and had extensive support in countries that want to see our nation take its place among the world’s soccer-playing nations. More and more Americans see soccer in their travels, full World Cup competition from beginning to end will be broadcast quadrennially to the United States, and cultural exchanges will bring glamorous foreign teams to our shores. Hundreds of youth teams now go abroad every year to participate in tournaments and “friendlies.” We are a global village, as Marshall McLuhan observed, and the village plays soccer. Given the growth of the sport here, we will not be far behind. Consider the more than one million spectators who attended the 1984 Olympic soccer matches, even though the U. S. was eliminated early.
Soccer’s Potential for Influencing American Culture
If sports are a metaphor for life, a means for society to inculcate and civilize its young by developing character traits and values society desires, and if soccer is a rising phenomenon, a tidal wave of youngsters and teams, it might be useful to speculate on the potential of soccer to influence our culture and our lives. At least we can raise some issues for discussion and research.
Soccer and Family Life
Heretofore, the father was the dominant sports role model in most families, especially with his influence on his sons and team sports. Now, over 25% of all youngsters playing soccer are girls, many on coed teams, and women equal men in leadership positions in the sport. If girls and women can compete successfully in these previously male-dominated sporting roles, and they obviously can in soccer, what will be the effect on role differentiations in the family and on male/female relationships as kids grow up? I can only think it will be healthy-with mutual respect for competitiveness, skill, and enthusiasm wherever found, unless the male egos are so fragile that such competition is threatening. I don’t believe it is.
In how many team sports can girls compete on a par with boys, before puberty? And if women are assuming increasing roles in society outside the home, will soccer aid this revolution? Time magazine (“Comes the Revolution,” 1978) reported several years ago on women in sports, observing that “the revolution in women’s athletics is a full, running tide, bringing with it a sea change-not just in activities, but in attitudes as well” (p. 59).
“Sweating girls are becoming socially acceptable,” as one parent put it, and the traditional male characteristics from sports are being experienced by females-aggressiveness, working cooperatively to achieve goals, persistence in skill development, courage, competitiveness, and knowing that success isn’t final and failure isn’t fatal-all healthy psychological traits. Again, we are sure of one thing: Soccer isn’t going to detract from the development of these important character traits; it may even help.
Redirection of Community/Organizational Resources
Soccer is already competing for limited outdoor facilities with football and baseball; it is now starting to compete for indoor space as teams play through the winter. Resistance from athletic directors and recreational center heads has been strong, but community pressures and the sheer numbers of young players have brought pressure for change. We’ve already examined some of the factors contributing to its growth, and it is my experience that public officials, once they understand soccer’s appeal, low costs, mass participation, and encouragement of family and community involvement, quickly become supporters, recognizing the declining base for youth and eventually high school and college football.
Preparation for Life
Sociologists and psychologists commonly agree that sports have a role in preparing young people for adult life. Time (“Comes the Revolution, ” 1978) cited sociologist David Riesman, who said, “‘The road to the board room leads through the locker room.’ He explains that American business has been ‘socialized’ by sport. ‘Teamwork provides us with a kind of social cement: loyalty, brotherhood, persistence’ ” (p. 55).
What traits do we most desire in our young people? In an article in the Village Voice, Tom Carson (1984, p. 61) talks about football’s “maniacally single-minded reduction of all relations to power relations …. Football is the American reality principle at its hairiest-and the conquistadorial spirit is only made more pernicious for being sanitized into the kick-ass whimsy of a harmless good time …. It has achieved national pastime status because it really does embody certain basic themes in American life.”
Congressman Jack Kemp went further when, in considering America’s bid for the 1986 World Cup and the possible expense, he railed on the floor of the House that American “football” is the only real football, the epitome of democratic capitalism, whereas soccer, or “European football,” is a manifestation of European socialism. I am not sure of his interpretation, but if we listen to the experts writing about corporate America in the years ahead, we are moving toward corporate executives who have “independent, creative minds,” who are “visionary,” seeing and taking advantage of opportunities, who are “wary of authority” and sensitive to others, and who are nimble and fast, “good at changing positions in fast moving markets” (Wayne, 1984, p. 12). Wayne could have been describing a good soccer player!
The Professionals and International Cooperation
Indoor soccer is here, attracting sell-out crowds, although the purists mumble about its deviation from the traditional outdoor game. But the game proves fans will come out for professional soccer. An eventual full-fledged professional league, representing the best of American youth and bringing identity to cities (as football, baseball, and basketball now do), is the sine qua non for full acceptance of soccer in our country. We may be a decade away, but it will come when the tidal wave hits the beach.
Judging by the outpouring of good will for the United States Olympic Hockey Team in 1980, a truly competitive national soccer team would be therapeutic, even though undue “sports nationalism” has its negative side also. Participation in the World Cup and in international tournaments on a competitive basis would expose the sham of a “World Series” or “World Football Champions” by permitting us to compete in a real “world” championship. James Michener (1976), a former youth soccer player, believes World Cup soccer competition
“…offers a new dimension in sport, better in some ways than the comparable Olympics, for the overall level of performance is higher, and I will personally applaud the day when the sport becomes part of the American scene, with or without the sanction of TV. “(p. 374)
We have been unduly nationalistic and ethnocentric about our professional sports, looking down with some condescension on other cultures that do not play, or come up to our levels, in football, basketball, or baseball. But they, in turn, perceive us as less than civilized because we can’t play soccer with them or even discuss it intelligently. I believe our youth are showing the way, competing successfully and as good sportsmen in international tournaments. They are staying with local families, increasing understanding between cultures, and overcoming language and cultural barriers with their feet and their good will.
I heard a story recently about a visiting Danish youth team playing against a Long Island junior side. An American boy was injured in the game, and a Danish player immediately kicked the ball out-of-bounds to stop the game and enable the player to get medical attention. When the game was restarted with a throw-in several moments later, the American player who took the throw-in sent the ball directly to his Danish opponent as a gesture of appreciation. Winning isn’t really everything.
Let me end with my junior team, the Rangers (after the famed Glasgow Rangers, my father’s team), and the joy on my daughter’s face when she scored her first goal. I think of my sense of pride as my kids discover that working together as a team is far more effective than doing it alone. I think of the warm feeling of sportsmanship as our kids line up and shake hands after kicking each other for an hour. I think of our parents who thank me for encouraging their kid to get more out of himself or herself. And I think of the kid who comes up and wants to know when we will be signing up far next season. I couldn’t have said it 10 years ago, but soccer is here and none of us will ever be the same again.
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