The announcement last week that the Los Angeles Galaxy had signed David Beckham to a five-year, $250 million dollar contract shocked most of America, prompting many observers to ask: “What the hell is the Los Angeles Galaxy?” and “Who the hell is David Beckham?”
Most Americans simply aren’t aware of the astronomical popularity that soccer holds in the rest of the world. The first step for Americans, of course, is to understand that when you say “soccer” you really mean “football,” which is what the sport is called everywhere else in the world. It’s kind of like how “liberation” in the US means “oil” in other countries. Although soccer isn’t necessarily called football everywhere. Football still means football in Canada, as in Canadian football, which is the same as football (not soccer-football but football-football) in America except they have rules where nobody gets hurt and everyone always wins. And in Australia, football either means football (not Canadian football or American football (not soccer-football) but Australian football (not soccer-football)) or rugby league (though not rugby union), depending on the location of the native speaker. And Australian football (which is not Canadian soccer-football or football-football and is not rugby league (which is not rugby union)) is different from American football, in that everyone always gets hurt and no one ever wins except the Australian health care system.
Soccer has been a pretty hard sell in America. It’s doesn’t have the violent orchestration of football; it’s not the comatose statistical hinterland of baseball, nor does it have the comforting predictable dependability of basketball. It fails to equal ice hockey’s balanced doses of chaos and slumber, and it can’t even compete with the ineffectual window-cling martyrdom of stock car racing.
In America, soccer has pretty much been exclusively reserved to male children, who enthusiastically participate in soccer until they hit the age of twelve, that golden, free age when adolescents realize that if they put on a numbered T-shirt and kick around a pigskin they can actually hit people at full force with no repercussions whatsoever, and suddenly soccer’s hands-off-everything rule seems incredibly lame. Girls, on the other hand, will continue to play soccer past this age until they have made a conscious decision to be straight.
Soccer’s rules are, compared to other sports, simple. Soccer can be boiled down to:
1) Try to kick the soccer ball into the goal.
2) Expect to run a lot.
3) Don’t pass out.
4) Don’t touch the ball with your hands. Everything else is cool.
5) If a referee hands you a card, you can headbutt him with impunity.
6) Expect to be hit in the jimmy at least once a game.
7) Contrary to everything listed above, the goalkeeper can pretty much do whatever he wants, including arson
Symmetrically, fans also have some rules to follow, in no particular order:
1) Get gloriously drunk before the game
Additional rules that make soccer different than most league sports is that of the clock timer. When the World Cup made its tour in the United States in the mid-90’s, much was made out that the clock never stopped—if there was a time out on the field, they just added that time to the end of the clock and they kept the clock running. This resulted in a clock that never stopped. This seemed incredibly nonsensical to me, since it’s the functional equivalent of just stopping the damn clock, and it makes it a lot tougher to break away to show a commercial for Frito Lay Cheddar Disc-Shaped Things or Cranberry 7Up. Plus I guess they used some sort of metric time, because a game of soccer seemed to last approximately 18,000 years, unless there is a tiebreaker shootout, in which the entire world would grind to a halt, the spectral ethos kowtowing to the most simple solution of such a complex problem.
Major League Soccer was formed in America in the early 90’s, as part of a deal to bring the World Cup to America. While it has struggled, several markets have actually turned a profit, most notably the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas. Most teams, however, are financially struggling, such as the Tampa Bay Money Pits, the Kansas City Bleeding Red and the Miami Complete Waste of Everyone’s Time and Money.
Events may soon help soccer’s popularity in America, however. A few generations of kids growing up after playing soccer in their childhood may help, and a culling of unprofitable franchises has unfrozen some valuable resources. The biggest boost American soccer has received is the impending arrival of David Beckham. Beckham is the Michael Jordan of soccer, in the sense that he is set to make more money than most nations on the basis of being incredibly good five or six years ago but not so much now. Proponents hope that Beckham’s star power will bring some class and gravitas to American soccer, while detractors fret that Beckham’s arrival will simply imply that anyone who is 30 years old and married to a rock star will be able to play soccer.
Still, soccer is slowly earning a higher profile in America, which certainly can’t be a bad thing. Diversity in sport is important for many people, from youth camps and fitness experts to ESPN2’s Thursday afternoon lineup. And who knows? Maybe some Monday morning we’ll all be complaining about the MLS salary cap keeping the Colorado Rapids from being competitive, or how that red card in last night’s game was a grave injustice. Maybe not that soon. But in today’s globalized world, anything goes. As long as you don’t use your hands.