Mixed Messages Inhibit Soccer’s Growth In America

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It took over two years, but once this post goes up, Fan Interference will no longer call you crazy if you type “soccer” into the search bar to your right. This long-standing void is not a coincidence; I know little about soccer players, teams, and leagues, and even less about soccer tactics. I watch all the major international tournaments as well as some prominent league play, but this does not qualify me to write about the game with the same sort of confidence that I bring to my discussion of basketball, baseball, and (American) football. My distance from the game does, however, afford me a fair amount of objectivity when I observe its coverage. With that in mind, yesterday’s coverage of the Confederations Cup final between the United States and Brazil was disconcerting because of its failure to provide a consistent context. The broadcasters presented conflicting messages to the viewer by subtly but significantly changing the narrative of the match. The result, at least for me, was both confusion about the game’s importance and frustration with its duplicitous framing.

The first half’s narrative was understandable considering the events that had unfolded. Shockingly, the United States scored two goals within the first 30 minutes, leading the fifth-ranked Brazilians 2-0 entering halftime. Play-by-play man J.P. Dellacamera and – more persistently – color-commentator John Harkes lauded the Americans for their aggressive play, feisty temperament, and opportunistic scoring. Throughout the half, both broadcasters (again, Harkes more persistently) latched on to a classic narrative: the ascent of the underdog to a genuine force. According to them, this display was the culmination of years of maturation. The gap had closed significantly, if not completely. The United States could play with anyone in the world, and soccer would receive its long-awaited domestic boost.

Or maybe we just made the Brazilians mad.

One minute into the second half, Brazil scored. Twenty-seven minutes later, they added another and tied the game. Ten minutes after that, they scored their third goal of the second half and established the game’s final score: 3-2. The change in the broadcast booth was as stark as the change in play on the field. Proclamations of competitive equality were replaced with defeated admissions of Brazil’s excellence. The United States’ determination, skill, and toughness were apparently transient qualities, present only when the scoreboard favored the Americans. Now trailing, the Americans were simply outmatched by the supremely talented Brazilians. We never stood a chance anyway; the talent gap is too big. But that’s okay, it’s still an important step for soccer in the United States. We can lose to Brazil by one! It’s a maturation process.

At the end of the match, both broadcasters steadfastly assured the audience that this was an encouraging part of the United States’ development into a soccer power. They claimed that the team would learn from this difficult loss, making them more likely to secure victories in the future. I disagree. I would instead argue that realizing that the United States relinquished a sizable lead in a winnable game – and getting irritated about it – would do more for soccer’s domestic progression than any tired declarations of moral victory. Doomed by sloppy passes, ill-advised forays into the opposing defense, and a total inability to maintain possession of the ball, the Americans simply failed to maintain their significant advantage. A top twenty team should be able to yield at least a tie from a 2-0 lead at the half, talent gap be damned. Admitting the team’s failure to capitalize on a tremendous opportunity would be a drastic and effective change from taking more solace in yet another “important step for American soccer.”

I can’t help but wonder if the changing in-game commentary reveals something about why soccer has been so slow to catch on in the United States. Certainly, other major sports have footholds here and will never be usurped in popularity. But the conflicting narrative is symptomatic of American front-running when it comes to its soccer. When things are good, and we are leading a strong opponent, the oft-cited talent gap has closed, it’s our time to shine, and we cheer loudly. When things are bad, and we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, we pat ourselves on the back for a good effort and say we never had a chance anyway. We rationalize our futility by rejecting this particular sport as unworthy of serious effort and commitment, but demand praise when we excel within its confines. Perhaps if we got a little more upset about such crushing losses, we could improve the quality of the sport with some permanence. Even for a novice soccer fan, it’s unbecoming and disappointing to see us deem something unimportant solely because we’re not good at it.

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One Response to Mixed Messages Inhibit Soccer’s Growth In America

  1. Judi says:

    As I was reading your blog entry on the soccer commentary, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a link between this approach to reporting and the societal slip into “spinning” events into a general denial of accountability.

    I hate to play the “when I was a kid” card, but there has definitely been a shift in accountability over the years. When I was a child, the line between success and failure was simple and very clear. If one met a certain assessment criteria, one succeeded; if one did not meet the standard, one failed. If you ate your dinner, you got dessert; if you did not eat your dinner (and I mean ALL your dinner), you did not get dessert and you might even get sent to bed early with a lecture. If you got an A on your report card, you got a “that’s what I expected” from your parents; if you did not, you got a lecture on the need to work harder, apply yourself more. To put it in a sports context, it also meant that not everybody got on a team, not everybody got to play, not everybody got a prize.

    To a person of the current generation, this may seem a little harsh, a little insensitive to one’s ego and psyche. But people weren’t concerned with egos and psyches. They were concerned with results, with effort, with the process of achieving, with building “character”. Perforce, you rose to the standard … or you didn’t. One succeeded or one failed. One learned from one’s failures and became a better person.

    But somewhere along the line, the concern about the fragility of people’s egos took control. Now, society praises effort, not result. Parents reward intention, not attainment. God forbid anybody fail at anything. All kinds of excuses are created for the lack of success, and the faults that impede success are not one’s own, but somebody else’s. You see it all the time. For example, Sally did not finish her history report on time. We know the excuses Sally will give and that the parents will accept: The subject was too hard (I know, dear, I couldn’t do that assignment as an adult!), the teacher didn’t give her enough time (well, the teacher should understand you have all these extracurricular activities that will be so important for your college applications), I had to send 3000 text messages because my friends needed to talk about their problems (I know, they are so lucky to have you as a friend!), I thought I could get an extension because Andrea got an extension when she was out with the swine flu for a week (I know, but you were busy for a week with the cheerleader tryouts!), etc. ?!?!?!?!

    Are we really so fragile that we can’t take a little failure, that we can’t handle criticism? Making mistakes it how we learn. If we don’t make mistakes, if we are not allowed to make mistakes, if we ignore mistakes, if we sugarcoat mistakes, if we TRANSFORM mistakes into wrongs done against us, we will never, ever learn. Where are the Howard Cosells of today who will “tell it like it is”?

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