Monday, June 26, 2006


My World Cup runneth over

My latest writing gig is with Manhattan Media's new weekly Our Town/Downtown. The 6th issue - available for free in sleek black boxes mostly south of 23 St. - features an op-ed column by yours truly. Last week, executive editor Bill Gunlocke sent me the following email:

"Got anything in you about the Cup and U.S. losing, maybe with Heat and Mets?"

Here's what I came up with:

My World Cup Runneth Over

Soccer vs. baseball? Sorry – it’s no competition.

Every four years Americans get into soccer. Or are forced to get into soccer. The World Cup is such a big hype that sports fans have no choice but to pay attention.
Now that the US is out of the Cup after losing two games, tying one and scoring just two goals (one was kicked in by an opposing player), I suppose we can care less. It’s between the European (Germany, Portugal, England, the Netherlands, Spain) and South American (Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador) soccer powers now.

I’ve been having on ongoing argument with a friend about soccer. I call it boring. She claims otherwise and accuses baseball – my favorite sport – of being way more boring than soccer. She’s been to Brazil and Argentina, so she’s rooting for those teams. Perhaps if I’ve experienced soccer culture in Sud America I’d have a different opinion.

I’ve experienced European soccer fanaticism during my frequent visits to the Netherlands. There’s nothing like hanging out in a coffee shop smoking pot and hash, drinking Heineken on tap and listening to fans scream like hooligans during a good match.

But it still doesn’t make me want to sit at home for hours during the World Cup waiting for teams to score infrequent goals. My friend says baseball is similar, especially a 2-1 game. True, but what about 8-5 games? That doesn’t happen in soccer. We agreed that soccer and hockey probably have more in common. But I don’t like hockey either.

Baseball may be my thing, but I like basketball too. I particularly enjoyed the recent playoffs that resulted in a first-time champion in the Miami Heat. One player, Dwyane Wade, fully dominated the NBA finals series like Michael Jordan did during his amazing championship run with the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s. I don’t see one player having that kind of impact in soccer (except for Brazil’s Ronaldinho). It’s a team game, not a platform for superstars. That may be more egalitarian, but it doesn’t translate into thrilling TV watching.

Right now, for me, it’s all about the Mets. They have their best team in 20 years, which happened to be the last time they won the World Series. They’ve built a powerhouse comprised of mostly Hispanic players. As I write this, they lead the NL East by an astounding nine and a half games. Four starters – David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Paul Lo Duca – plus pitching ace Tom Glavine appear to be ticketed for the All-Star Game on July 11 in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, cross-town rivals the Yankees may be struggling with injuries and a depleted rotation, but still remain in a pitched first-place battle with Red Sox, who the Mets infamously defeated in ’86 World Series and play this week in Boston.

I don’t expect Subway Series 2, though I do think the Mets could be this year’s Chicago White Sox – build a big early-season lead, coast through the summer, hold on in September as an unlikely team (Marlins, Nationals?) gives them a scare, then charge into the playoffs with the kind of momentum that can take them all the way.

No such luck for the US soccer squad, which I guess is OK with me. Now I can get back to baseball, without any distractions.


There are two elements that interact to produce our reactions to most sports: nuances and personalities. In almost every team sport you can think of, the real game is played at a level that's just beyond what's obvious to a casual spectator. In baseball, for example, there are dozens of little things that are familiar to fans but invisible to the casual observer...the situational positioning of infielders, the pitcher moving the ball around inside the strike zone, the strategy involved in base-stealing. We baseball fans see and appreciate these things in a way that your friend probably doesn't. Conversely, such nuances are probably there in soccer but you and I just don't know what the hell they are.

The other issue is knowing the teams and players and, as a result, having some sort of emotional investment in them. We have it with major league baseball so we get involved with the games at a different level. Contrast that to watching the College Worls Series. Without knowing all that much about the schools or the players, it's a far less compelling deal than MLB, even though the game itself is the same. Similarly, without knowing much about any of the soccer teams or players, it's tough to get involved.

Having said all that, it's clear and inarguable that baseball is by far the superior game, right?
All right, I've had this argument with you before :).

Both baseball and soccer require you to slow down, to get into the spirit and pace of the game. Baseball is kind of like macho chess, in which each small move in a tight situation--a ball bringing the count to 2-and-1 with one out and a fast runner on first base, or a strike making it 1-and-2 and precluding a bunt--has meaning.

In soccer, you've got to get into the flow of the game--the way Brazil passes in midfield to set up an attack, and so on. And like the guy said, having an emotional investment makes a difference. I got hooked watching Argentina play England in a coffeeshop in Buenos Aires four years ago, surrounded by "hinchada" (fans) in blue and white and with my friend muttering "Fuck you, Spice Boy" when Beckham got a penalty kick.

That said, yesterday's Switzerland-Ukraine game was boring as hell.

P.S. If I ever get to watch the Dutch national team on TV in an Amsterdam coffeeshop, I'm bringing sunglasses for all that screaming day-glo orange.
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