Sunday should be a landmark day for soccer in the United States. The English Premier League closes its season with 10 simultaneous matches, marketed as “Survival Sunday.” Seven of the ten, between ESPN and FOX, will be shown live simultaneously on American TV. Like many weekends, it will be easier to watch the EPL than it is in its native country. Just two decades ago this would have been inconceivable.
Pele and NASL happened in certain cities. World Cup Finals had been televised before, however the American sports media’s first broad and direct engagement with elite foreign soccer came with the 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was on TV, even if it was TNT with commercial breaks. An American team had qualified for the tournament for the first time in 40 years. Most importantly, the U.S. had won the bid to host this massive, foreign event just four years later in 1994. The future of soccer in the U.S. had to be addressed. Consensus predicted it would be an absolute disaster.
The sport met with hostility. Many sportswriters hated soccer. They knew “Americans,” who hated soccer alongside them. Here was Dan Shaughnessy writing in the Boston Globe on July 5, 1990:
I hate watching soccer.
There. I said it. Does this make me a bad person? Does this make me woefully ill equipped to write a sports column for a major metropolitan daily? Does this mean I’m the kind of guy who cheats on his taxes, eats the last chicken leg and takes 11 items through the eight-items-or-less line at Star Market?
No, no and no. I just hate watching soccer and I’m getting pretty fed up with the guilt I’m supposed to feel. When can Americans stop apologizing and admit that it’s just not working? Kids love to play the game. Great. Does that mean we have to pretend it’ll someday be a major spectator sport in this country?
Sportswriters found the sport inscrutable. They did not understand what they were watching and, good xenophobes that they were, categorized and dismissed it entirely. They saw neither strategy nor tension in soccer. It was a boring morass of inactivity.
From William F. Reed in Sports Illustrated on July 16, 1990:
We also like patterns to our games, with clearly discernible times of offense and defense, instead of all that milling around that we see in soccer. The sport most often compared to soccer is hockey, but that does hockey a great disservice. And what about strategy? We can think along with the manager or coach in baseball, football and basketball, but if there is a game plan in soccer—and experts insist there is—it remains a secret to me even after the game has blessedly ended.
Steve Twomey echoed this sentiment, writing in the June 24, 1990 edition of the Washington Post.
We go to sporting events to become deliciously tense, to relax through nervousness. That paradox is a product of possibility, the chance that whatever the situation is now, it might change in the next two minutes. If your team is ahead, it’s that sense that its lead is not safe. If behind, it’s that hope that a comeback is imminent. The enjoyment is in the possibilities.
In soccer, the fan has little hope of such reversals. There is so little scoring that the game has no possibilities. It is stripped of tension. And without tension, it might as well be cooking class…
Soccer fails the mind, too. There is little for the fan to analyze as the game progresses. One of the beauties of baseball is that it provides endless opportunities for the fan to play manager, to decide what he or she would do in the situation at hand. The fan can delight in the mounting tension and then watch what happens. But in soccer, hardly any moment is more pregnant with possibilities than any other. What is the soccer equivalent of fourth-and-goal from the one?
Hal Habib, in the July 15, 1990 edition of the Miami Herald, suggested some radical reforms that weren’t implemented, including points for goals and removing the offside rule within 35 yards of the goal.
* Bonus points. That was some confusing NASL formula no one understood. But the gist was this: Winning wasn’t enough; you had to win and be entertaining. So let’s give teams bonus points in the standings for goals.
Nice try, but that will give attackers only one more step. Why not try the NASL way, in which offsides applied only within 35 yards of the goal? If that doesn’t open things up, how about just inside the penalty box?
But, this World Cup did inspire FIFA measures, encouraging more positive play. The offside rule has been continually tweaked. Much of the brutal tackling has been refereed out of the game. FIFA also outlawed goalkeepers picking up backpasses in 1992.
American journalists were also irked particularly by penalty kicks. Paul Attner discussed them in the July 23, 1990 edition of the Sporting News.
Imagine, if you will, the U.S. Open ending in a tie and, say, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo deciding the winner with a putting contest. Or the Super Bowl being decided on the best-of-five placekicks from the 20-yard line. Or Wimbledon being decided by the accuracy and speed of five serves. Preposterous, right? Well, the World Cup, arguably the biggest sporting event in the world, could have hinged on a penalty shootout.
It works this way: If the overtime ends in a tie, each team gets five shots at the opposing goalie from a distance so short the goal-keeper has virtually no chance to make a save. If that still doesn’t decide things, then the teams go into a sudden-death shootout. Thankfully, that never happened. But of the final seven games, three were decided by the shootout formula, including both semi-finals. Argentina didn’t earn either of its quarterfinal or semifinal victories by standard methods. Both victories came as a result of penalty kicks.
The reason for all this? Television, of course. World Cup officials rightfully were afraid games could go on for hours, which would anger TV executives and alter programming schedules. So the shootout was a tidy answer to keep the time of the games under control. With any luck, it will be dropped by the next World Cup, which will be played in that soccer-mad country, the United States.
Yes, this was clearly a ploy for television, as opposed to not having players die from overexertion. They still exist for better or worse, as the only real alternative is replays, which don’t work in a compact tournament.
Soccer also portrayed as a malevolent influence. When the sport was covered, stories often focused on fan violence. Paul Attner described scenes from the 1990 World Cup in the Sporting News:
If all that wasn’t troublesome enough, there were problems on the homefront. In the hours following the loss to West Germany, hooligans rampaged through various cities in England, damaging stores, taking their frustrations out on German cars and basically using the game as an excuse to raise hell. By daybreak, there were two deaths, 600 had been arrested and an estimated $ 2 million in property damage had occurred.
“You fear for your life,” one waiter, a native of Italy, said at a London restaurant the night after the violence. “None of us would leave for a long time last night. Everybody out there (on the streets) was going nuts.”
Besides these inherent, many American writers, still flush with Reagan-era American exceptionalism, felt soccer was socioeconomically incompatible with the United States. The U.S., after all, was wealthy, sophisticated and industrialized. Soccer was a sport for poor people.
From Reed in Sports Illustrated:
Soccer’s global popularity has a lot to do with economics. To play soccer, all you need is a ball and a field, and I can appreciate the simple virtue of that: Nobody has to buy bats, helmets, gloves, pads or the other accoutrements of American sports. But that’s why soccer is not only the most popular sport in most underdeveloped countries, but also the only sport.
From Bob Verdi in the July 30, 1990 issue of the Sporting News:
Soccer just can’t make it in the United States and Japan, which happen to be the two most industrialized nations. That doesn’t make soccer wrong. That doesn’t make the United States and Japan right. It’s just a fact of life.
From Twomey in the Washington Post:
So how come so many billions adore this World Cup thing? Easy. They don’t know any better. Most countries don’t have professional baseball, football, basketball or hockey. They just have soccer. Maybe, too, they’re comfortable with a sport whose essence is the lack of opportunity. They like its hopelessness; it feels like life.
This sentiment was ignorant and, historically, could not have been more improved. Soccer does not just coincide with wealthy, industrialized economies. The sport’s global popularity is a product of urbanization and industrialized economies.
The sport arose in 19th Century Britain, then the world’s leading industrial power. It quickly spread to countries that were rapidly industrializing. They had large populations with leisure time and discretionary spending power. They also had British engineers and economic experts bringing the sport with them. Soccer took root in Central Europe and South America and industrial and port cities (Milan, Manchester, Marseilles, and the Ruhr in Germany). Industrial countries where it didn’t stick, such as the United States, Australia and Ireland, had their own variants of “football” descended from the Rugby branch of the game.
Soccer was inscrutable, anticompetitive and foreign, with brutish and violent fans. Consequently, many believed the 1994 World Cup would be a disaster. Some played up reports that FIFA was preparing to revoke the 1994 tournament from the United States. Dick Ebersol thought the World Cup would be a non-event on television.
From Verdi in the Sporting News:
He is Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, and he says that under no circumstances will his network bid for the rights to the World Cup when it invades the United States in 1994. Further, Ebersol predicts that CBS and ABC also will refrain, not so much as a civic gesture but because of cold business logic.
“Given the ratings, I don’t think anyone will go for it,” said Ebersol, noting that fewer than two of 100 Americans bothered to watch what was hailed as the most important sports event on the planet.
Ebersol was wrong. Americans loved the World Cup. The 1994 tournament ended up being a tremendous success. It was FIFA’s most profitable World Cup until 2010. ABC averaged a 5.3 rating for its 11 World Cup telecasts, including a 9.3 for the USA-Brazil match and a 9.5 for the final. This excitement spawned a domestic league, still expanding and financially sustainable. It would spread first to the women’s game with the 1999 World Cup victory and later, with the advent of the Internet and soccer-specific cable networks, to the European club game.
Dan Shaughnessy still does not like soccer, but he’s forced to grapple with the Red Sox owning a major European club and, even he had to admit, the Women’s World Cup was fun to watch.
[Photos via Presswire]