A European view; Can the United States save soccer?
The emergence of soccer in the United States promises to enrich the routine sequence of football-baseball-basketball-hockey there. But can it bring any advantageous effects for traditional soccer-loving countries? My answer is a strong yes.
As a somewhat typical European, I received a relatively typical European education. This means that before I could read or write I could kick a soccer ball a couple times in the air in a row.
With this background I have been watching soccer's progress in the United States. When I came here for the first time in 1973 just a few played and nobody treated it seriously. This year in the Midwest I see as many soccer fields in Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado as if I were in a European or South American country.
On the world scene soccer has found itself in troubled waters in the 1970s. Maybe America can help to save soccer's best characteristics, such as bringing societies closer together and preserving the noble art of spectator sports.
Since the middle 1950s soccer has created a common language and subculture for European nations. The best players enjoy similar popularity all over, be it in the Soviet Union, Spain, or Iceland. Furthermore, people quite often identify countries not by the names of their political leaders -- who cares about them after all? -- but by the names of their leading soccer players.People in Africa and Asia often measure a European country's prestige by the performance of its national soccer team. Every soccer fan in Europe and many in Latin America or North Africa know that Cruyff and Neskens means the Netherlands; Platini, France; Beckenbauer and Gerd Mueller, West Germany; and Tomaszewski or Lato or Deyna, Poland. In many cases an average European knows only one famous Brazilian -- Pele -- and two Argentinians, Kempes and lately Maradona. The European or world championships have sometimes been the only opportunities for acquaintance between people from countries which did not recognize each other or maintain normal diplomatic relations.
But soccer as a spectator sport raised many questions in the 1970s. Soccer can serve as a lightning rod for the aggressive streak in individuals and crowds. This was acceptable when heckling was limited to shouting at the referee (usually urging him to leave the field and answer a nonexistent telephone call), singing national and club anthems, or whistling (which in European nations is the equivalent of booing).
Today's public behavior is much more extreme. Fights between fans of opposing teams in the stadium and beyond; punctured tires and broken windows in cars displaying "enemy" license plates; and vandalized trains with passengers being terrorized by drunk supporters -- these are familiar examples. What is even worse is that this behavior acquires international character. It is a paradox that most of it comes from the country which gave birth to the idea of fair play -- Britain.
Meanwhile, on the field itself, the attractiveness of soccer for onlookers is decreasing in Europe.Many people blame coaches for sticking to defensive tactics , but the first order of this business is not to lose a goal. At the same time fine forwards are often the target of specially trained hit men who, to use a Polish soccer saying, mow them down. Punishment for such action is not strong enough.
Another shortcoming is that basically we still play the game our forefathers played at the beginning of the century. The rules make a very boring "possession game" a regular weapon in all teams' arsenals. They indirectly discourage the offensive (most interesting) style of game and reward defensive, wait-for-opponents'-mistake tactics. Many soccer commentators in Europe have started nicknaming it a game of chess -- what sounds like a death sentence for soccer.
I hope I have not frightened any potential US fans of this game by pointing out some not-too-well-known weaknesses of this sport. But it is here I see the role for North America.
First of all, the never threatened European-Latin American soccer "duopoly" needs the fresh wind of competition. Asia and Africa have not been able to fulfill this role despite substantial progress both in terms of number of players and the level of play during the last few years.
Also needed is a higher level of fan behavior. The behavior of most American baseball and football spectators seems so ideal to me that I do not dare to dream about it. Even 50 percent of this performance would be a substantial improvement in soccer crowds.
Last but not least there is much to do in regard to conduct and motivation of players. Soccer must become more competitive both at the individual and team level. This should help to restore fans' faith in the fairness of all -- even the most improbable -- results.