Baltimoron in DC
When You Get Caught Between Charm City and Chocolate City

Football versus football versus football

So, Gatorade has the commercial about football, and football, and football. The voiceover guy describes how three different sports (US football, soccer and Aussie rules football) are all called Football.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that US football is misnamed, because players don’t use their feet to kick the ball as their hands to hold it and throw it. But, as I’m an American, and to minimize confusion, US football is football, Euro football is soccer, and Oz football is rugby.

A young man dubbed Stu in Portland, Oregon, is originally from England. He finds America’s most popular team sports, football and baseball, are too slow compared to his beloved soccer, what he dubs “proper football.”

Oh, yeah, proper football – the sport where guys run around for 90 minutes, have the refs stop the play and issue penalties with little-to-no-explanation, no real accurate clock is kept because of mysterious “penalty time” and players get traded between countries and leagues so that only 10 teams in 14 countries have any real chance of winning? AC Milan, Man U, Arsenal, Real Madrid and… there’s not many after that.

If an American football player fumbles the ball in the end zone, he gets benched. If a Columbian proper football player accidentally puts the ball in the wrong goal, he gets killed.

If there’s a bad call in American football, the refs can look it over on instant replay. If there’s a bad call in European proper football, there’s a riot.

I spent two years in college watching Dutch, Italian and English Premiere League soccer because I was fairly convinced I’d be assigned to a European broadcast office. I concluded after two years of dedicated watching and various articles on the subject that soccer is in definite need of reinventing itself or it will self-destruct – much like the NHL did, and what US Baseball is in danger of as well.

Why? Here’s a few reasons:

1) European Leagues are filling up with non-Europeans. I had a joke at an NHL game a couple of weeks ago, referring to the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning – “Our Russians are better than your Canadians!” All 68 people in attendance laughed, and I think I saw Alexander Ovechkin nod in approval.

All sports with an international following become more expensive and harder for the average fan to root for when they can’t connect with the players on the court, culturally and ethnically. Canada and the NHL worked because the sport is part of the culture, and Canadian culture is part of the sport. Once Europeans, specifically Russians, became part of the mix in the `80s, NHL teams were forced to compete with each other for attracting top talent moreso than developing their own in the minors. As a result, there was a disconnect between the top players and the fans who supported them.

This is the same thing happening in soccer. The top African and Arab players are being bought by the rich European clubs. Occasionally a lesser European player or aging South American star will be signed by an American club, but it’s really the Euro teams buying top foreign talent…often at the expense of European players. And, as is painfully evident in France the past couple of weeks, there’s still a disconnect between ethnic Europeans and immigrant Europeans.

2)The rich get richer… When Beckham was traded this past year, it was from one wealthy club to another. The disparity in player payrolls from one club to another is amazing. In England, for instance, how can Birmingham possibly compete financially with Manchester? Arsenal? Liverpool? They can’t. Sure, they might win a game from time to time, but, year in, year out, the teams that get promoted to Premiere League status face a hell of challenge staying there. Smaller clubs simply can’t spend the cash of the big boys.

The NHL allowed teams from smaller Canadian towns to move to Sun Belt US Cities in an effort to gain more revenue, and attract new fans. All that did was alienate the base group of the league. Seat prices skyrocketed, historic teams suddenly became marketing ideas, and the league expanded, thinking more teams would equal more revenue.

Overexpansion diluted the level of play, and keep high-revenue teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars – two former Northern teams from Quebec and Minnesota – successful at the expense of the smaller Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets.

The NHL instituted a salary cap this year, and suddenly, the playing field is a lot more even and wildly unpredictable. Of course, the NHL had to lose a season and gawd-knows-how many fans in order to learn its lesson.

3) Lack of instant replay ignores the technological advances made in the world. American football has used technology well, from camera placement to protective gear to medical science. Instant replay became a logical solution to many of the problems of plays simply being too close to call with the naked eye. The NHL learned the same things – using high-tech materials to make more durable sticks, better helmets, and cameras to ensure proper call of goals.

Soccer…well…hasn’t.

Sure, shin guards might be a bit better, but the game is judged exactly like US baseball – using the naked eye. And, as evidenced in the playoffs and World Series this year – humans make mistakes.

Knowing the emotional capital the average soccer fan puts into the sport, what if a World Cup match gets decided by a mistaken goal call?

That there’s already pushback against the Adidas soccer ball with a microchip to prevent mistakes doesn’t bode well for introducing technology in the sport.

4) American sports are designed to be enjoyed and savored. Baseball breaks between innings to allow for bathroom breaks, hot dogs, beers. Football is the same way. Soccer doesn’t allow itself to take breaks. While that’s cool in one respect, that doesn’t allow for fans to take a break, or let drama build in silence. Think of every great play or movie…the heaviest drama occurs during lulls, when emotional weight is heightened.

Soccer fans start chanting before the game, and often are worn out by minute 90.

Instead of two 45 minute halves (which never last 45 minutes anyway), soccer should go to 3 30 minute periods. Allows for more commercial breaks for tv, more bathroom and food breaks for fans, and gives the riot police more time to get into position.

Rugby learned to make itself much more TV and fan-friendly over the years.

Why else should they break up the game? Well, honestly, soccer is the most over-advertised sport in the world. The players wear advertising on the field. I’m not talking a small Reebok symbol on the shoe or Nike on the jersey, but BIG FRICKIN’ LETTERS “Vodaphone” or “Motorola” or “Carlsburg.” How in the world can you root for an advertisement? I hate the damned New York Yankees, but their jerseys say “Yankees,” not “Sirius Satellite Radio.”

“Hey, way to go, Watney’s Red Barrels!”

Puh-lease. When I put on a jersey, it’s because a fan of a team or a player, not because I happen to particularly associate with a brand of cheese or cell phone. Americans like uniforms with team names on them, or, at least the name of the town. We don’t need to advertise for some credit card on our jerseys.

The exception to this is NASCAR. Granted, car racing is more about the car than athletics, but those dudes dress up like walking billboards. Half of them could be tagged with graffiti and you wouldn’t be able to notice.

And NASCAR fans LOVE their sponsors. Hell, for years, Ricky Rudd was sponsored by Tide. Millions of Southerners bought Tide t-shirts, Tide hats, Tide flags, and Tide blankets. They loved Ricky and they loved Tide. The fact that most of them looked like they never used Tide detergent one time in their dirty little lives is secondary.

Soccer players dress like NASCAR drivers with teeth.

5) “Anybody can play soccer” is a routine comment to support soccer’s Everyman status. And while it’s true that anybody with legs and a ball (arms optional) can play the game, doesn’t that somewhat lessen the status of these players? Many American men played football growing up; few played it beyond high school. Why? Because the average NFL player is a physical specimen – fast, strong, massive. It is very hard to be 6’4″, 275 pounds and able to run 40 yards in less than 5 seconds. In fact, it’s hard to be 5’9″, 195 pounds and run 40 yards in less than 5 seconds. NFL players do it routinely.

Baseball players have to be able to react to a 90 mile-per-hour pitch from less than 70 feet away. This means a hitter has to react to a baseball 1/10th the size of a soccer ball and whip a bat around at 100 miles-per-hour to even have a chance of hitting the ball. They then need to run 90 feet in less than 5 seconds to even have a chance of getting to first base. The two hardest things to do in sports is to hit a baseball well and the Tour De France. A close third would be to hold on to a football after getting pummelled by a 265 pound linebacker like Ray Lewis or LeVar Arrington.

Soccer…well, let’s see…you have to be able to run and kick a ball.

I’m not minimizing the athletic ability of soccer players as much as I’m saying “it ain’t that damned hard.” The players are fast runners, and they have strong legs. They can kick a ball. Goalies have to have lightning fast reflexes. But running and kicking a ball is basic. Freddy Adu is hardly old enough to drive a car but is already a pro soccer player (then again, if you think Freddy Adu is 16 you need to have your sanity checked). He (allegedly) was 14 and a pro. A 14 year old baseball player is simply not going to get his bat around on a Roger Clemens’ fastball, or a Billy Wagner slider. He’s not going to be able to play 162 games in a summer. A 14 year old football player would be killed, if not made permanently retarded, if he got hit by Brian Urlacher or Sean Taylor.

He’d be destroyed in Australia on simple general principle. Those guys are the roughest people in the world. They make hockey players seem genteel. A rugby scrum is not the place for a new teenager. Hell, I’d imagine Superman would come out with some bruises against rugby players. At least a black eye and a cleat to the groin.

In America and Australia, size matters.

Soccer players writhe around on the ground after getting kicked in the leg. Football players take a play or two off after getting a concussion. Rugby players drink a beer with a dislocated shoulder.

NO CONTEST!!!

Soccer players need to get bigger, or tougher, or less whiny. Something. They just look ridiculous rolling on the ground. I don’t want to get all Jim Rome-esque on this, but he’s so damn right. “Stop rolling, Euro! You look like a pansy. You just got kicked in the leg, time to flop. At least Nancy Kerrigan got hit with a pipe, and she’s a girl, yet she sacked up more than you, Euro soccer boy. Here’s Bill in Pasadena, welcome to the Jungle, what is up?”

((that’s really funny in my Jim Rome impersonation voice, too. Great job.))

6) Way too many frickin’ tournaments. The World Cup I can deal with. The European Cup I can deal with. But there are so many qualifiers for the World Cup, the UEFA Cup, the Pan-American Cup, CONCACAF, The Saharan Cup, the Protective Cup, The Dixie Cup. They might as well join the Breeder’s, Davis and America’s Cups while they’re at it.

Do they win the Stanley Cup next?

I’m sure these tourneys are all very important, but they disrupt the flow of the regular season. Injuries occur in these tournaments, and suddenly, valuable players are out of their professional jobs. If David Beckham breaks his foot playing for England in the UEFA, don’t you figure Real Madrid would be PISSED?

This is exactly why I hate professional athletes in the Olympics. For years, the Americans put out amateur baseball, hockey and basketball players, and always did well. Maybe not always the Gold, but certainly Silvers and Bronze Medals. Watching the US Olympics in 1980, watching that hockey game STILL gives me the shivers 25 years later. Those kids WANTED that victory…it was the biggest moment of their lives. Such a big moment, it was immortalized in a movie, Miracle.

Pros play to not get hurt. And that’s why the so-called Dream Teams were utterly boring. Wow, you mean Michael Jordan is a better player than some dude from Greece? SHOCKER!!

I’m all for getting the best players together, but do it on a level playing field. Suspend all league play for a half-year, and make the World Cup Qualifiers and Finals a six month event. Have the best US players play the best Mexican players, have the best English play the best Germans, and then culminate the end of the year with the World Cup itself. This way, the best players don’t have to worry about their pro teams and leagues, and can concentrate on playing the best soccer for their respective countries.

More drama. Better quality of play. Less chance of a key injury ruining a professional team’s chances of winning because Christoph Metzelder got turf toe in the middle of his pro season at an exhibition game for the EUFA Cup.

(He plays for Germany, for the record. Don’t ask me his pro team, but his jersey probably has a cell phone on it.)

Baseball is talking about a World Cup themselves. Not a horrible idea, but this should take place before Spring Training, after the Super Bowl. A month-long tournament before the season featuring each country’s best players makes more sense than breaking up the season in the middle.

7) Eliminate ties as much as possible. Ties suck. There aren’t ties in war. There aren’t ties in poker. The NHL has taken every step possible to eliminate ties now, and, you know what – the games’ a bit better now. It means more during the game itself, because no team wants to put its goalie in a must-win situation.

8) Leave the goal posts alone.

Some people say Americans need more scoring in the game to make it more interesting to us. I don’t buy that. Lots of Americans love a well-pitched baseball game that ends 1-0. A good defensive football match can be 9-6. Sure we’d like a touchdown, but sometimes that’s just not in the cards. Hey, I’m a Baltimore Ravens’ fan – I know a well-played football game can end without touchdowns, because the purple-and-black don’t score too many!

In soccer, a good offensive game can be 2-1. A blowout is 4 – nil. Those are viable baseball or hockey scores. Nothing wrong with that. But the bastardized version of soccer that is available in this country, indoor soccer, is ridiculous. It resembles real soccer the way Arena football resembles real football – it doesn’t! I don’t need to see a 15-12 indoor soccer game, where each goal is celebrated by cheerleaders shooting t-shirts into the stands.

In fact, I think the only reason why indoor soccer and arena football exist in America is for people to get an opportunity to grab a free t-shirt. People go apeshit over free t-shirts. Guys will elbow little kids and chicks will show boob just to win a t-shirt.

————–

Those are just a few suggestions about how to improve soccer, or at least keep it Real.

To summarize:

1) Reconnect with your fans with identifiable players
2) Get a salary cap
3) Embrace some technology
4) Make it more TV and fan-friendly
5) Get a real team name, Frenchy
6) Stop being so damned wimpy
7) Rearrange your tournaments to make sense
8) Ties suck
9) Keep the game dimensions the same

And, #10…

Give out free t-shirts so chicks will show boob.

War random rants about Euro sports!

Telecomedian, out.

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