Really. Soccer? Really?
Ron Seyb is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair in Government at Skidmore College. Given that title it should go without saying that he clearly spent much more time studying than he did playing soccer. But we’re going to say it anyway. Fortunately for us he can work through the pain that comes from not being able to execute a proper scissor kick and still write a great humor column for The Wire.
Margaret Mead would have been less gobsmacked by the Samoans if she had ever moved from a large city to a small town in the United States. Moving from a place like Los Angeles, where professional and Division I college athletics dominate the news, to a small town where a common news tease is “The Niskayuna-Guilderland clash on the gridiron is up next on Big Board Sports” can seem like moving from Vienna in the time of Mozart to a junior high school hallway in the time of Carly Rae Jepsen. But perhaps I understate.
One surprise I encountered when I arrived in Saratoga Springs back in the late 1980s was the amount of coverage that youth sports received in the local press. But even more disorienting for me was the extensive coverage of one sport in particular.
I am usually not discriminating when it comes to my sports viewing. Put Robert Conrad up against Gabe Kaplan in a match race on Battle of the Network Stars and my heart will start beating like a hummingbird’s. But there had always been one sport that prior to my move to Saratoga had left me bothered and bewildered: Soccer.
My attitude toward soccer before I alighted in Saratoga Springs was best captured by one of my friends, who when he was asked by another father to help coach his daughter’s soccer team, responded, ”Soccer? That’s the one where they can’t use their hands, right?” There was youth soccer when I was growing up in Southern California during the 1970s, but to call it a fringe sport would be doing a disservice even to buckskin fringe. I recall how dumbfounded I was when I learned that a handful of kids in my Little League had decided to play something called AYSO soccer. One of these kids was Paul Caligiuri, who went on to become a stalwart on the U.S. National Soccer Team, but I confess at the time that I was convinced that Paul was a subpar athlete because he could not field groundballs with one hand while eating a taquito with the other. No sensate kid at that time thought that soccer could lead anywhere other than to perhaps a role as the brooding, ostracized kid with an “unusual talent” on an ABC Afterschool Special. There were only three sports when I was growing up: football, baseball, and basketball. Every other “sport” was nothing more than an activity, like whittling or ridiculing Easterners.
My first cut at overcoming my aversion to soccer was to read some books about the game. I wish that I could report that my encounters with the works of a number of talented and thoughtful authors had turned me into a soccer evangelist, but even the best of the genre - Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World - left me asking the same question that Katharine Hepburn asked Spencer Tracy when she walked into a baseball stadium for the first time in Woman of the Year: “Are all these people unemployed?” Who but a desperate, even despairing, writer would reject the richness of the human condition to write about people who call a 0-0 tie a “beautiful game”? A Red Lobster menu struck me as a better source of literary inspiration.
My recently discovered appreciation for soccer is due less to a self-conscious pursuit of enlightenment than a Darwinian process of adaptation to my environment. There is not a single adult in my milieu who does not have one or more of his or her offspring participating in the Wilton Soccer Association (Which, on a side note, sports a web page that could pass for NORAD’s without too much suspension of disbelief). I cannot make conversation with any of them without inquiring into how well their kid controlled the midfield, or angled his or her corner kicks, or executed his or her flick headers, or created space for a teammate this past weekend (Author’s Note: I have no idea what any of the preceding means). But beyond the ways that feigning such interest gives me leverage when I need my friends to whitewash my picket fence, this charade has had the unexpected side effect of giving me enough insight into local youth soccer to perceive that there is something special about it. Perhaps because soccer still has not become a major sport either on the college or the professional level in the United States, most of the kids who play soccer locally seem to be happy to do so. Now I recognize that as one moves up the Masonic levels of the Wilton Soccer Association one will surely find kids who are playing for the wrong reasons or suffering use injuries that could be avoided by a more measured approach to participation. But it strikes me that the soccer kids with whom I come into contact rarely sport that saturnine visage that suggests, to quote one of my favorite South Park episodes, they are “practicing sucking” so that they can end their All Star run before it interferes with their summer vacation plans.
I have hence negotiated a rapprochement with soccer. It is, however, a fragile peace, one that will last only so long as kids continue to revere Derek Jeter more than they admire Brek Shea. Should the wheel of history ever turn to alter these allegiances, then I will need to reconstruct my Maginot Line of disdain. But even should that happen, those soccer cherubs will always be able to find a way to my heart through Belgium or, I suppose, Niskayuna.
ON THE WIRE