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“It’s not the vuvuzelas, honest.” Why I’m not watching the 2010 World Cup

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It’s not the vuvuzelas, honest.

It’s not the flopping, nor the nil-nil scores. It’s not because it seems dull or because it seems kinda phony. It’s not even about the hype (although there is quite a bit).

I dunno what it is. But something is keeping me from getting into the World Cup.
Preface that idea with a statement: I am actually fan of soccer (or, if you’d rather a word I will not use again here, futbol). I actually rather enjoy the English Premier League and even own a Tottenham jersey. I actually watch it about as often as I watch hockey, in the sense I see about one game a week.

I even enjoyed the last World Cup. That year, I got really into soccer. Summer mornings, with coffee on the end table, ABC on the TV and me, on the couch, getting seriously into the game. When it’s good, it’s good.

When it’s not, it’s not. Poorly played, when a team gets blown out or when the ball never seems to go anywhere, just hanging around midfield, soccer is downright dull. Boring, even. Dryer then rye toast.

True, what I just said is a total and complete cliche. Scratch that. Soccer = boring is no longer even a cliche, it’s something on display at the British Museum, right down the hall from the Portland Vase. It’s something I’ll stand by, though. For the uninitiated, soccer is a hard sport to watch. There is no stoppage in play, save for halftime, yet there’s comparatively little action in a western sense.

For it’s the western sense of action that most have been weened on. In football, there’s the play clock, all but assuring that something will happen. In basketball, the addition of the shot clock turned a plodding sport into something almost ADHD, where the ball is constantly in play; something has to happen in 24 seconds or less. Let’s not even go into hockey, a sport at least as hyperkinetic as the large hadron collider, unless the New Jersey Devils are playing.

The idea that something has to happen, can’t wait, gotta see this now is not something the west has been fond of. When NBA introduced the shot clock in 1954, it was credited with saving the nascent league. Prior to the 24-second clock, the league developed strategies of holding the ball and forcing the other team to foul; there were a few games with combined scores of 40 or less. It bottomed out when the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 in 1950

But at least some of that is in contrast to what happened almost immediately after, when teams would run and gun and take over 100 shots a game. Watch a Finals game from the 60s and see what I mean: the action is fast, unceasing and more then a little like the Seven Seconds Suns. It’s a huge difference from the kill-the-ball strategy some were using.

That’s the key difference that other, non-North American sports, don’t have. Stuff doesn’t have to happen within a set period. Things can last as long as they have to. In soccer, teams don’t have to take a shot on net every 30 seconds. In tennis, a game can last more then 100 sets. I’m not even going to attempt to explain cricket, a game whose box scores confuse me more then a Thomas Pynchon novel.

In short, they’re not anywhere near as fast-paced as American sports are, where something is always happening and can be easily broken down into short, digestible bites. And if you’re used to those, I can see how it’s easy to get bored.

I’m positive ESPN’s Bill Simmons once wrote he liked soccer because of it’s rhythms (although I can’t find it at the moment). With them, he was able to fade in and out and read or write or something during the boring parts, and kick back in when the crowd/announcers alerted him to something happening. It’s an attitude that I’m sure is shared by more then just one would-be NBA GM. And it’s kind of missing the forest for the trees.

If all you’re getting out of the World Cup is some kind of background ambience, something only worth paying attention to for the short bursts at net, it’s kind of like complaining that Brian Eno’s music doesn’t make you wanna dance. It may be true, but it’s not the point. Soccer isn’t really a game that’s meant to keep you entranced for the full period of play.

After all, we live in a sports culture that’s really fast-paced. Look at SportsCenter. Not only are two-hour long games chopped up into two-minute (or less!) highlight packs, but they’re slickly packaged with jump cuts, a thumping backbeat and a well-dressed man yelling a catchphrase. ESPN is what everybody, or least the average, is used to.

In a sad kind of way, I am too. I’m completely guilty of spending just as much time on my laptop, on Twitter and message boards in the past playoffs as I did actually watching a game; I can think of at least a couple times where I missed a goal or a big dunk because I was too busy looking at my MacBook.

Soccer is an overwhelmingly huge difference. It’s a novel and I’m used to Life Magazine. It’s a game that both constantly demands attention, yet doesn’t constantly deliver. But in a few moments, it can rapidly shift and allow something to happen. If you aren’t paying attention to what looks like a group of men playing keep-away, you’re missing them probing and testing the defence. If you decide to flip over to The View, you can miss the point where they find a weak spot and charge up the pitch and lay a shot on net.

That’s why I just haven’t been able to get into this World Cup. It’s not that it’s boring, it’s that it’s nowhere near the pace I’m used to. It’s my failing, not soccer’s. And it’s really kind of pathetic.

Written by M.

June 25, 2010 at 9:00 am