Being a soccer fan in America has always contained a strong evangelical aspect to it. Maybe that dopey story a couple weeks ago in the New York Times style section killed it off, but for a long time if you were a soccer fan in this country trying to get other sports fans to see the light felt like a requirement. Soccer is the beautiful game and anyone that didn’t appreciate it needed to be converted at every and each oppurtunity.
Maybe this type of soccer missionary work still goes on, even if the fight is all but over. As we know, two-thirds of Americans say they won’t watch the World Cup in June, leaving well over 100 million to enjoy it which seems like a significantly high-enough number.
The two general jumping off points for trying to convert people into soccer fans has been the World Cup, and to a lesser extent, the Champions League. It’s worth bringing this up because — somehow — if last week’s Champions League semifinals between Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea followed by Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich were your first introductions into the sport, you’d probably never want to watch soccer again.
Herein lies part of the problem. So many soccer fans are caught up in aesthetics and worry that the game has to be attractive to the eye or at least provide some baseline entertainment. The Chelsea/Atletico 0-0 first leg draw provided, well, nothing. And you know what? It shouldn’t be required to do that. It’s the semifinals of the Champions League, anyone expecting a wide-open, rollicking affair — especially with Jose Mourinho involved — needs their head examined. There’s simply too much at stake most times in a two-leg semifinal, especially with the byzantine away goals rule involved. Entertainment value isn’t going to win out over defensive-minded, if not cynical, “bus-parking” tactics. This might not be the typical soccer romantic view, but it’s true.
If you’re a soccer evangelical and skipped the afternoon at work and took a non-believer to Buffalo Wild Wings for a Champions League semifinal last week, the joke’s on you.
This happened again Sunday in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Liverpool. As much as so many in the soccer world bemoaned Mourinho’s adherence to tight, disciplined compact defending, it’s not easy to pull off for 90 minutes at the end of a long season. The ultimate object is to play to win, if that’s ugly so be it. Again, this might not win over any new fans who got up early on Sunday to watch, but with three games left to play in the Premier League season, converting new American fans is about priority No. 517 on the list.
Once upon a time, this massive letdown during a “big” soccer game happened to me, too. I still remember watching the 1990 World Cup final with my dad — who doubled as our local rec team coach — thinking to myself: this is it? West Germany is really going to win this supposedly important trophy instead of Argentina thanks to a penalty kick? Am I supposed to be impressed? (At the time Andreas Brehme’s mullet wasn’t ironically funny either.)
This continues to play out in America.
Every four years the World Cup final rolls around on a mid-July Sunday afternoon. ABC/ESPN will rightfully hype it up. The game ends up the most-watched event in the solar system (sorry, Roger) and we all go on our merry way. As a soccer fan, I feel bad for the random people who’ve made the World Cup final the one time they decide to turn their television sets to the world’s game. Granted, anyone choosing to watch one game of a sporting event — and casting supreme judgment from it — always seems a little strange. Sure there is a lot of inherent drama of the World Cup final — take Brazil’s eventual triumph over Italy at the Rose Bowl in 1994 — but the game itself rarely lives up to the hype. We all remember Roberto Baggio hoofing his penalty over the bar, but the game was still 120 minutes of scoreless soccer.
This match — unlike the great semifinal that preceded it between Italy and Bulgaria that featured two genius goals from Baggio — wasn’t going to win anybody over. Rightfully so. The same point could be made about this year’s NFC Championship Game offering a lot more entertainment value than the Super Bowl two weeks later, saying nothing of Richard Sherman’s postgame comments.
Let’s keep going.
France’s 3-0 win over Brazil four years later was marginally better, if only for Zinedine Zidane entering balded-headed Beast Mode before we even knew what Beast Mode entailed. Does anyone in America remember the 2002 final in the middle of the night from Japan aside from Oliver Kahn making angry faces after Ronaldo scored on him? 2006’s final was an interesting case since it was Italy vs. France and finished 1-1 and was decided by a shootout. One of the goals in regulation was a penalty, so again, the game was dramatic but Zidane’s headbutt probably overshadowed anything from the game’s 120 minutes. And 2010? What do we remember more from Spain’s 1-0 win over the Netherlands in extra time: Andres Iniesta’s winner or Nigel de Jong’s karate kick that wasn’t deemed red-card worthy?
Did that final win over any new fans, aside from Drake? (who probably bought a Spain jersey the second the ref’s whistle sounded.)
Let’s agree the 1990 World Cup in Italy is a fair jumping off point in terms of television and American interest. I went back through the previous six World Cups and looked at goals scored from the quarterfinals onward (third-place games notwithstanding). Granted goals alone don’t always equal excitement, but there are so few measurable stats in soccer it’s the best we have. For comparison’s sake the Premier League — regularly hailed as the most exciting, most-watched league in the world — is averaging 2.76 goals per game in 2013-14. MLS averaged 2.62 goals per game in 2013.
- The 42 World Cup games measured averaged 2.05 goals scored.
- The six World Cup finals averaged 1.5 goals scored.
- 1994 and 1998 each saw 19 goals scored, while 2002 had only nine.
Again, if you’ve decided the only time you want to watch soccer was the World Cup or specifically the final, you might come away with the impression the game is as boring as you’ve been led to believe. Fast forward to 2014 when seemingly every major European or South American game is televised on cable or satellite along with MLS and the Mexican League, there isn’t any shortages of watching soccer to form a much better impression on the game than a one-off, World Cup final where so much is on the line it rarely behooves a team to play, open, aggressive, attacking and aesthetically pleasing soccer.
Smart, if not snobbish, soccer fans also love to trumpet the UEFA Champions League as the best thing going. While it might contain the best teams and players in the world, again it falls into the trap of knockout soccer where the risk/reward chart rarely if ever puts an emphasis on entertainment for the folks home on the couch.
If you only watch the Champions League final, you make out a little better than the World Cup final. I decided to go back to 1999 — the year of Manchester United’s famous last-second win vs. Bayern Munich — and added up all the goals scored in those 15 finals. It comes out to an average of 2.8 and would be higher if not for Juventus and AC Milan playing to quintessentially Italian 0-0 draw after extra time in 2003.
Timing, of course, means a lot. If your first introduction to the Champions League or soccer was the much-hyped Barcelona/Manchester United 2011 final — the first Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo super fight, as it were — you’d probably walk away less than impressed by Barca’s ho-hum 2-0 victory. By the same token, if your first game was the 2005 final — the Miracle of Istanbul — when Liverpool overcame a 3-0 deficit to AC Milan to win in penalty kicks you probably ran online to learn the lyrics to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Jerzy Dudek’s leg convulsions probably won over a lot of Liverpool fans for life in America that day.
Judging soccer on the World Cup — specifically the final — might have done more harm to converting the non-believers than anything else this side of players faking contact and flopping on the grass like Vlade Divac. As crazy as it sounds, if you’re only planning on watching one soccer game in 2014 you might find more pure entertainment value in a random Saturday afternoon MLS game than the World Cup final July 13 in Rio. It won’t be nearly as dramatic but the game itself might produce a lot more action or a chance to form a better opinion on the sport.