Football is Life

I've read a lot of nonsense over the years on right wing blogs but nothing quite like the rank stupidity of former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's post on why Americans supposedly don't like what we in the rest of the world call football but what you in Anglo America call soccer. If Mr. Thiessen is to be believed football, despite being a multi-billion dollar enterprise, is some sort of socialist sport.

Writing in the American Enterprise Institute blog, Mr. Thiessen finds:

The world is crazy for soccer, but most Americans don’t give a hoot about the sport. Why? Many years ago, my former White House colleague Bill McGurn pointed out to me the real reason soccer hasn’t caught on in the good old U.S.A. It’s simple, really: Soccer is a socialist sport.

Think about it. Soccer is the only sport in the world where you cannot use the one tool that distinguishes man from beast: opposable thumbs. “No hands” is a rule only a European statist could love. (In fact, with the web of high taxes and regulations that tie the hands of European entrepreneurs, “no hands” kind of describes their economic theories as well.)

Soccer is also the only sport in the world that has “hooligans”—proletarian mobs that trash private property whenever their team loses.

Soccer is collectivist. At this year’s World Cup, the French national team actually went on strike in the middle of the tournament on the eve of an elimination match. (Yes, capitalist sports have experienced labor disputes, but can you imagine a Major League Baseball team going on strike in the middle of the World Series?)

At the youth level, soccer teams don’t even keep score and everyone gets a participation trophy. Can you say, “From each according to his ability…”? (The fact that they do keep score later on is the only thing that prevents soccer from being a Communist sport.)

Capitalist sports are exciting—people often hit each other, sometimes even score. Soccer fans are excited by an egalitarian 0-0 tie. When soccer powerhouses Brazil and Portugal met recently at the World Cup, they played for 90 minutes—and combined got just eight shots on net (and zero goals). Contrast this with the most exciting sports moment last week, which came not at the World Cup, but at Wimbledon, when American John Isner won in a fifth-set victory that went 70-68. Yes, even tennis is more exciting than soccer. Like an overcast day in East Berlin, soccer is … boring.

Let's start with opposable thumbs. All primates save tarsiers and marmosets have opposable thumbs and even some marsupials have them so that's clearly not the distinguishing feature of the beast we call homo sapiens. No, what distinguishes humanity from other mammalian beasts is our enhanced cranial capacity, though that seems to be lacking among conservatives, and the fact that we are bipedal. Bipedal from the Latin for having two feet. Funny that given our rather unique ability amongst mammals (birds are also bipeds but obviously not mammals) to motor around on our two feet that then we should have invented a game that primarily involves moving a ball around with one's two feet. But apparently to American conservatives, the obvious is all too often beyond their grasp.

Furthermore, the use of hands is permitted for the goal keeper and other players use their hands to put the ball in play if it has been kicked out of bounds. So those opposable thumbs that Mr. Thiessen finds so essential to our humanity do come into play.

It's is also odd that a conservative would take issue with the rules of the game which are few and remarkably simple. Compared with the rule book for American football, football is rather unregulated on the pitch. No intentional hand touches, the offsides regulation, and no tripping or hard tackling. Add in a few more rules about starting up play and that pretty much covers it. The total number of rules are but 17. I'm not sure the number of rules in American football but I'd daresay an NFL linebacker is a much more regulated beast than a Bundesliga sweeper.

And while the modern game traces its origins to the establishment of the Football Association (FA) at Freemason's Tavern in London in 1863, variants of the game can be found the world over dating back 3,000 years. The first documented use of the English word "football" comes in 1409 and there are references to various kinds of ball games going back to the 9th century. The Greeks and Romans played a version of the game. In pre-Hispanic Central America, a game called tlatchi flourished. The idea of kicking around a ball with one's feet is rather universal it seems.

As per hooliganism, that is largely but not exclusively an English phenomenon more than a global one and more often found at the club level and not at the international level though in 1969 a World Cup elimination game between Honduras and El Salvador was the immediate catalyst (the underlying cause was tension caused by Salvadoran migration into Honduran territory) of a hundred hour war. Even so, it's not like hooliganism doesn't exist in the US. I seem to recall riots in Los Angeles, Denver and Detroit after championships were won. Furthermore I've been to football games on three continents and never once been harassed for rooting against a home team but I was assaulted at Candlestick Park in 1985 during a Mets-Giants game for chanting "Let's Go Mets!" And I've never been more scared for my life at a sporting event than at an Oakland Raiders game. It was as if the prisons had been let out.

No, the reason American conservatives hate football is because it is the world's most democratic game and one that enjoys mass appeal. It is one of only two major sports, the other being rugby, that does not require any specialized equipment to play. But unlike rugby which favours the behemoth, anyone call play football and hence its popularity. All you need is a ball. Even goalposts can be fashioned by simply placing two rocks. Pickup games can involve as few as three people. And it can be played just about anywhere, on grass, on asphalt, on a beach, indoors or out and in any kind of weather. 

The democratic egalitarian nature of the game is its greatest feature. The game does not discriminate against the short and stout. David Villa, the Spanish striker so far one of the leading scorers in this World Cup, is but 1.75m or 5 foot 9 inches, pretty much average size for a human male. The Argentine great Diego Maradona even his prime hardly cut some of paradigm of athletic physique and yet he could move the ball with his feet with remarkable precision and artistry. There is no prototypical footballer. As with humanity itself, they come in all shapes and sizes.

But even more football is an apt metaphor for life. It's hard work to score a goal just as in life it is often difficult to achieve one's goals. Often but not always a goal is the result of incredible precision passes each pushing the ball forward. And all too often a brilliant daze of passes goes for naught either stymied by a defender or a final shot gone awry. It's all those near misses that make the goal scored all the more precious. If scoring is all you crave then you're missing the point of football, that life is just a series of mundane events punctuated by some rare surreal ones. So celebrate the surreal and enjoy the mundane because that's life.

Tags: FIFA World Cup, American Right Wing, Marc Thiessen (all tags)



professional soccer hasn't caught on here

because it's not a tv-friendly sports format (few opportunities for commercial breaks).

Also, other, more established professional sports already dominate American television year-round. Over time seasons have been extended so that for much of the year, two out of our three big professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB) are going on, not to mention college football and basketball.

My biggest gripe about futbol is the clock never stopping. It creates too many opportunities for gamesmanship; players on the team that's ahead are very, very slow to get up off the ground, slow to throw the ball back on the field, and so on. I don't like the stall tactics. Stop the clock if the ball isn't in play.

by desmoinesdem 2010-07-02 08:14AM | 1 recs
RE: professional soccer hasn't caught on here


I completely agree - that's one of the better changes that Rugby Union made a number of years ago. That and the fact that Rugby players aren't wusses who cry when someone comes within arm length of them and roll around on the ground for ten minutes... One other point that I find always find amusing: There is no draft in Rugby or Soccer - players are hired based on the finest tradition of capitalism: who can pay the most.  So while conservatives complain that soccer is socialism, I'd ask how can you make that claim when supporting the draft in NBA/NFL/NHL... cheers, p.

I completely agree - that's one of the better changes that Rugby Union made a number of years ago. That and the fact that Rugby players aren't wusses who cry when someone comes within arm length of them and roll around on the ground for ten minutes...


One other point that I find always find amusing:

There is no draft in Rugby or Soccer - players are hired based on the finest tradition of capitalism: who can pay the most.  So while conservatives complain that soccer is socialism, I'd ask how can you make that claim when supporting the draft in NBA/NFL/NHL...




by poibar 2010-07-02 08:41AM | 0 recs
RE: professional soccer hasn't caught on here

For many fans of soccer, though, the fact the clock keeps running is one of the biggest attractions.  You'll never see a 4 hour game of soccer, like you occasionally do in baseball; nor do you have the agony of watching the final 2 minutes of a soccer game turn into 30 minutes, as with basketball or football.  (Perhaps for some people this is a part of the attraction).  I'm not bashing the other sports, mind you-- I'm a big baseball fan and like basketball as well, as well-- but I think it's truly a case of 'to each his own.'

I think you should also qualify a few of your other comments.  First, that soccer is not a TV friendly format should be specified to refer only to the domestic context, given that it pulls in top ratings anywhere else on the globe.  (And one should point out that this World Cup has generated quite favorable ratings on both English and Spanish networks in this country, and coverage of Major League Soccer has only improved).

Second, success really needs to be defined.  I disagree with your basic premise that "soccer is not a domestic success."  Is this because it's not as popular as American Football?  If that's the barometer, then there aren't many successful sports in the US.  I think we'd both disagree with that.  I'd argue that soccer is a massive, and increasing success domestically-- we have a domestic league that plays at a reasonable level and have succeeded in generating a very respectable fan culture (and one that only keeps increasing).  Teams in Seattle (30k+ fans per game), Toronto (part of the league, so I mention it), and Philly sell out pretty much all of their games; LA, DC, Chicago, and others historically draw quite well.  (Average attendance is 16,400 this year-- which compares quite favorably to NHL and NBA)  See: .  There are teams that don't draw as well-- a couple of which are playing in temporary digs while they construct new stadia (ie. KC, SJ)-- but we don't write off American baseball because of the Devil Rays and Nats, do we?

We also shouldn't forget that we're also talking about a sport that millions play (I think it's the largest youth sport in the US); and where millions more are fans of foreign leagues (when Mexican or English and Spanish teams play in the US you regularly see crowds of 40-60k).

I tend to like your posts; I think this one doesn't fit the empirical record (or that you need to be a bit more clear about your categories).  You might not like football-- and clearly you're not alone on this blog, and really, who cares?--  but there are millions and millions of Americans who actually do live and breath soccer.

by dvk 2010-07-02 04:17PM | 0 recs
Definitely Not 'Socialist'

I'd make a couple of additional points.  As for size of players, baseball is actually a major sport which, like soccer, has no size requirement.  A small, fast player can earn as much as a home run slugger.  And pitchers also have no size issues.  Tim Lincecum, who won the past 2 Cy Young awards, would barely make a scale move.  As for no equipment needed and a sport that can be -- and is -- played anywhere, basketball would fit that bill, as would sandlot pick up game iterations of baseball, such as stickball, stoopball, softball, etc.  So I don't think those criteria are relevant.

My problem with soccer is actually the offside rule.  If an offensive player can beat the defender down the field and get behind them, and get a lead pass from another player, that should be part of the game.  Basketball and hockey both allow that and have fast breaks that generate great excitement for fans.  Also, I, like most Americans, have a problem with the timekeeping system, which is far too loose for my tastes.  I like precise time, so I would know, to the second (or in basketball and hockey now to the tenth of a second) exactly how much time is left in the game.  Keeping the clock running during injuries, replacements, out of bounds plays, etc. is, to me, all wrong.  Further, teams should be allowed some timeouts near the end of the game so coaches could plan strategy depending on the score.  Also, more substitutions, for strategic purposes, should be allowed.  Why carry 20 players on a team if only 14 (11 starters + 3 subs) can ever play in a single match? And, in substitutions, the silliness of somebody on the sidelines holding up a sign and then the sub having to wait for the other player to leave the field of play is just idiotic and looks foolish to us Americans.

And one final point.  Thiessen is indeed an idiot for claiming that soccer is a socialist sport.  It is, at its highest level, like all professional sports, totally exclusive.  Only the most talented players can get on the field.  And the salary levels in the premier leagues in Europe and even in the US, are hardly socialist.  They rival, and often exceed, salaries played top of the line baseball players, NFL players and NBA players.  If you want a really socialist professional sport today, try the NBA, where your salary is strictly governed by your length of service and position in the draft.  Or also try the NFL, which shares all revenues equally among the teams (total socialism!) and requires all teams to pay the same aggregate salary to their roster of players.  Now, that's socialism with a capital "S."

by nelcon324 2010-07-02 10:37AM | 0 recs

Or also try the NFL, which shares all revenues equally among the teams (total socialism!) and requires all teams to pay the same aggregate salary to their roster of players.  Now, that's socialism with a capital "S."


this is the key point and should not be a footnote.  nelcon324 nailed it. 

by 2liberal 2010-07-02 10:56AM | 0 recs
The US is a liberal-socialist country just not as totally socialist as other democracies.

We're working on it. Still I doubt that the average world soccer fan has such high and mighty notions in mind as 'socialism' when watching a game, even subconsciously.

Vuvuzelas! If it were not for these noise makers, the World Cup would have seemed the most boring spectacle I have ever watched on TV. Imagine, only seven serious scoring attempts in 90 minutes of back and forth, of nothing but wasteful foot and head movements that go nowhere. But as in America, where our best ballplayers, be it in football, baseball, or basketball, tend to come from the poorest classes, I think this might also be true of world soccer. On this level, we are all the same, although, as you suggest, soccer might be more a primitive sport than those requiring hand dexterity, and a high leve of eye-hand coordination.


by MainStreet 2010-07-02 11:54AM | 0 recs
"Wait till next life!!!"

If you don't win this life, well, there's always the next one!

Sports is the perfect metaphor for life.

If you're a reincarnationist.

by eroded47095 2010-07-02 05:02PM | 0 recs
RE: Football is Life

I hate soccer, though I don't begrudge those who do enjoy it, and my dislike has nothing to do with politics. Socialist? Please. It's not socialist. It is, however, slow and boring, and no wonder - the field's too big. I didn't realize how huge the field is until I tried watching some World Cup games (couldn't ever stand if for more than a few minutes), but wow. Also, I had a bad experience on my first grade soccer team with our coach, a former Greek national player. I played the next year, though, so that doesn't have too much to do with it. It's just boring to me. That is a ludicrious article, though. Even if the thumbs argument were true, there's no logical jump from there to socialism. Are American football punts, field goals, and extra points socialist? Geez.

In his defense, however, I would say that it doesn't matter if hooliganism is real or not. It's the perception that matters. Even if it isn't real, Americans see the media and think it's real, and form their opinions based on what are apparently bad facts.

BTW, MOST youth sports give everyone a trophy, even American football. I've got so many from soccer and baseball, and I was a RIGHT FIELDER, which in grade school is no honor. So that's a ridiculous argument.

by Nathan Empsall 2010-07-02 06:06PM | 0 recs


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