Two (Related) Problems with Soccer

This past Sunday I went to the University of California-Berkeley men’s soccer game, their second home game of the year and the first I’ve gone to in a couple of years. I grew up going with my dad to University of Maryland men’s soccer games regularly — as a kid I supported two teams, the Orioles baseball and Terps soccer — and going to Cal games gives me a little taste of that experience again.

Soccer has been in my blood my entire life. I played CYO soccer (St. Isaac Jogues!) for maybe a season or two when I was really little, before having to stop as my divorced parents’ arguments restricted my activities. At 11 or 12 I returned, playing through my first year of college (Go Battlin’ Bishops!) until I hurt my shoulder and realized I was at a terrible college and imagined greater things for myself. As a kid I was a Manchester United fan because I didn’t know any better. (Man-U and Arsenal were the teams that American soccer fans liked before oil money brought prominence to Chelsea, then Manchester City, and now Paris St-Germain.*)

With the Steroid Era and general futility hurting my interest in baseball, and the general evilness of the NFL and its supporting/feeder organizations making it difficult to stomach football**, I’ve returned to soccer. And with UC Berkley just a short trip away — in breaking down the Bay Area, I refer to my side of the Berkeley and Oakland Hills as the boring side, while Berkeley/Oakland constitute the cool side of the hills — I’m trying to go to as many of their Sunday games as I can.

It’s a nice way to spend my only day off, but my experience yesterday brings to mind two things that I think are very wrong with soccer in America.

I. Uninformed spectators

This is an elitist argument, I know, but it’s an argument nonetheless. Many soccer fans in the US, especially middle-class Anglo-Americans of my parents’ generation, did not grow up around real, competitive soccer. They may have grown up around rec league stuff, or they may have played in a travel league as a kid themselves. More often than not they came to the sport after putting their kids in a rec league. The attachment to the sport is much looser than it is with soccer fans in other parts of the world, or with football or basketball or baseball fans in the US.

My most frequent complaint is this: People don’t realize soccer is a contact sport. You’re going to get clattered sometimes. Opposing players will hang onto your shirt or shorts while you’re running down the field next to them. You will get kicked in the ankles and the calves and the shins and sometimes the face. Even in less-competitive adult fun leagues, this happens. Each of these events is not a foul.

Watching college soccer, especially in poorly-attended matches, the crowds tend to be filled with players’ parents, who are used to watching their babies be protected by the rules of lower leagues. But now their babies are adults who sometimes get tripped or shoved. That can drive a parent crazy.

At Sunday’s game, older Cal fans (whom I assume were parents, though you never know) were shouting for Northeastern players to be red carded for infractions that were clearly not red card offenses. That trend is not limited to parents of college players, though. Watching games with the every-four-years crowd — that is, the people who pack the bars in force for the World Cup but don’t watch any soccer otherwise — is an exercise in tolerance. It’s impossible (and rude) to point out every time they’re wrong, that no, that wasn’t a penalty, nor was it a dive, it was just regular contact in the run of play. Or no, that wasn’t a terrible offensive move, it was actually great defending, have to give credit to the opposing players there, that was good work on their part. Or no, that wasn’t actually a bad call, our guy really did pull the opponent to the ground there.

This isn’t limited to soccer, of course. I once watched a football game next to a woman who — while clutching a rosary — yelled “horse collar!” every time a defender tackled a Saints player. She clearly had no idea what a horse collar tackle is. But the issue is more widespread with soccer.

II. The Culture of Complaining

I recognize the hypocrisy here. I’m about to complain about people complaining. At least I’m self-aware.

No other sport allows the level of dissent and disrespect to the officials that soccer allows. It’s built into the sport’s culture. Watching a soccer game, one might assume that no player has ever committed any foul, or any of the most minor infractions, ever in their playing careers. When a player commits even the smallest infraction, he*** yells and screams at the referee — every single time. If I were a referee, I would constantly be giving out yellow cards for dissent.

This culture of complaining is built into the sport and doesn’t really have a practical effect on the actual gameplay. Guy gets fouled, player getting called for the foul screams at the ref, ref tells him to shut up (or ignores him), the free kick is taken and the game resumes apace. It may be insufferable to watch but it’s an aesthetic thing. As someone who loves the sport in all its forms and is hungry for competition and excitement — but who also wants to focus on the side of humanity that is good and kind to its fellow beings — it can be a real drain to watch.

The problem grows, of course, when the uninformed spectators I grumbled about above latch onto the players’ complaints. At Sunday’s game, Northeastern had this incredible defensive midfielder from Zimbabwe, who was really an extraordinary player. His motor and positional awareness were amazing, and even though Northeastern ended up losing 3-0 he played a great game. Early in the second half, though, when the Northeastern coach had his players applying pressure all over the field (instead of sitting back in defense like they had in the first half), he inadvertently clattered into a Cal player. Definite yellow card, but unintentional and definitely not a red. After a second incident a couple of minutes later — this one was definitely not a card offense, but it was a foul — the Cal fans started booing him. Remember, this is a 20 year old kid, who committed a foul but not an egregious one, and 50-plus year olds are screaming for him to be kicked out of the game. This is the flip side of the culture of complaining, where the ref is always wrong when he calls your guy for a foul but every opposing player is the anti-Christ.

Soccer is a great sport. It’s my favorite sport to watch and to play, though at this point in my life I’d maybe rather be running than anything else. Putting on my normative theorist hat once more, the issue I’m complaining about the most is, I believe, sportsmanship. Not even getting into rampant, pernicious issues in soccer like racism, poor sportsmanship continues to be a serious problem that does, occasionally, get in the way of spectators’ (or at least my) pure enjoyment of the game.

*There’s also always been the Real Madrid and Barcelona supporters in the US, and I’ve sort of cut them out in that sentence in order to better paint with broad strokes. Click here to return.

**Aside from blindly supporting my New Orleans Saints, of course. I love the Saints and enjoy the sport of football, but I hate the machinery surrounding the sport as well as the brutality of it. Click here to return

***This, as with my other complaints here, applies more to men’s soccer than to women’s. Women’s soccer tends to be a better, more enjoyable version of the sport. Click here to return.

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