American Beauty?: 2010 World Cup Part II, The Knockout Stage

“Some things don’t translate, so ya gotta be careful.”

— Rosanna Scotto, “Good Day New York”

The video is one of those horrific moments in popular culture where reality begins to imitate parody. Like some clueless dog after its own tail, a recent interview on the morning show Good Day New York came full circle to outdo the even the most biting Saturday Night Live “Morning Latte” skit. Hosts Rosanna Scotto and Greg Kelly met with international soccer phenom Thierry Henry, who recently (some might add inexplicably) left the European leagues to join the MLS and play for the New York Red Bulls.

Scotto began the interview with a perky declaration of her ignorance: “So, you just won the World Cup, right?” Actually, Henry’s French team had failed to win a game in that recent tournament, falling apart spectacularly and refusing, at one point, even to practice after a dispute with their coaches. Their lackluster performance made for national outrage and international intrigue. Henry, to his credit, steered the conversation to his country’s prior World Cup win in 1998.

Undeterred by his woefully unprepared partner, Greg Kelly jumped in with his own trenchant analysis of soccer’s dim fortunes in the United States: “We like big scoring games…We like blowouts.” Welcome to America, Thierry.

The entire episode, in which this international star attempts to politely negotiate his over-caffeinated, gleefully ignorant interlocutors is as awkward to watch as it is telling. Coming on the heels of the United States team winning the World Cup group and garnering national attention (as Henry himself mentions, 25 million Americans watched the tournament final), soccer seemed poised for a breakout. Pundits speculated that the US showing would create legions of new fans and boost the sport’s popularity across the country. The ESPY Awards (determined by fan voting) named Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time goal to beat Algeria and send the US into the knockout stage as the Best Moment of the Year in sports. A surge of pro-soccer sentiment seemed ready to sweep across the nation.

Cue Good Day New York.

Admittedly, morning talk shows and their hosts are decidedly not traditional bastions of sports knowledge. Henry’s train wreck of an interview, though, brings to mind past predictions of American soccer interest that never materialized. It seems to be cyclical; every major tournament in which a US team sees some success is heralded as the genesis of pro soccer’s rise to prominence in that country. To date, though, such a surge has yet to happen. Even this year’s World Cup performance, despite American viewership and media coverage, can’t prevent the likes of Scotto and Kelly from making a mockery out of a superstar. If this interview, and decades of history, are any indication, soccer in the United States is destined for a return back to suburbia — and obscurity.

What keeps it there, in part, are a host of criticisms of the sport, levied by detractors and embodied in part by the dynamic duo of Scotto and Kelly. The main drawback, the argument goes, is the lack of scoring. There’s simply not enough excitement in the game to sustain a typical American’s interest for 90-minutes. Beyond that, critics deride players as overly dramatic about fouls, flopping wildly about to catch the referee’s attention. A stubbed toe, to the untrained eye, might as well have been a gunshot wound. Finally, soccer’s opponents decry the rowdy, often violent atmosphere that stereotypically accompanies a professional soccer match. Stock footage of lit flares and fistfights in the stands seem inevitably to accompany any news updates of soccer abroad.

Of course, soccer’s defenders are quick to point out that the big three American sports are just as guilty of these drawbacks, respectively. The final scores of baseball games routinely mirror soccer results. Likewise, NBA players have adopted exaggerated foul reactions to bait the referees into calls, and anyone who’s been to a pro or college football game can attest to the drinking and fistfights that go on around the parking lot, in the stands, and under the bleachers.

Soccer’s main drawbacks are otherwise tolerated in all three of the most popular American sports, yet the sport remains largely ignored, even mocked. So, what’s the reason? This year’s World Cup final may yield a clue. Spain edged out the Netherlands in a stilted affair that pitted the finesse and passing skill of the Spanish players against the aggressive physicality of the Dutch. While the Netherlands were able to bog down Spain’s typically fluid possessions with repeated tackles and rough play (earning a record number of yellow cards from overworked referee Howard Webb), their strategy eventually backfired. After defender John Heitinga earned a second yellow card for fouls and was sent off, the Dutch were forced to play at a man disadvantage and eventually conceded the winning goal in extra time.

As it was framed in the media, Spain’s version of the “beautiful game” had ultimately managed to overcome the cruder tactics of the Dutch defense, a charge that was dismissed by losing goalie Maarten Stekelenburg: “beautiful soccer you can set on fire for all I care”. Yet it was impossible to ignore how the deft passing and keen improvisation on the part of the Spanish players truly separated them from their competition. The purely aesthetic principles championed by soccer enthusiasts — subtle cuts, coordinated attacks, well-placed passes — were the same attributes that earned Spain the championship.

Could it be, then, that soccer is simply too pretty for American sports fans? Such conjecture is, to say the least, problematic, insofar as it denies the importance of finesse in the big three American sports at the same time it fails to recognize the role that physical shoving and tackling play in soccer. Still, it leads us to consider the narratives that tend to drive sports for American audiences, as well as those that frame soccer. In the US, sports are seen primarily as a venue of physical conflict. What’s generally stressed is power-as-spectacle, whether it be in football (with players who can exhibit a “burst of speed” or “crushing hit”), basketball (which features “slam dunks” from players who “go strong to the rim”), or even baseball (which saves its greatest applause for home run hitters and 100mph fastballers).

Though the physical nature of each of these sports is far more complex than these highlight-centric feats allow, what drives their popularity is the kind of aggressive physicality that failed the Dutch, and that does not allow for the more subtle nuances of the “beautiful game”. Soccer features improvisation and imagination far more than ferocity and force. This might explain why that sport has followers who are willing to applaud passes and runs that don’t result in goals. What’s publically appreciated in these moments is intention and strategy. Results remain important, but the style with which they are pursued is also taken into account.

This premium on beauty, predictably, is the source of one final criticism of soccer, held by detractors who suggest that such enthusiasm promotes flare over substance. That critique, though, fails to imagine that the fluid style with which a sport is played can itself be a kind of substance, creating a spectacle every bit as compelling as a show of force, or a final score. Such distinctions are crucial since, as always, the way we watch sports says far more about us than it does about the sport.

While the future of American soccer is unclear, neither the World Cup, nor the arrival of new international talent seem to have made much difference. For now, American sports are governed by American imagination which, in the words of one morning talk show host, will continue to opt for big scores and blowouts.