wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Monday, April 03, 2006

Dave Eggers on soccer

About five years back, people were crapping their pants over Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It seemed like--and, to be fair, kind of became--the next big literary thing. It was pitch-perfect for the time. For the literati, there was the cheeky, outre title; the hyperliterate, stream-of-consciousness narrative; and the name-dropping scenesterism of the book's setting in tech-boom 1990s San Francisco. For the hoi polloi, there was the de rigeur tearjerker narrative: Eggers' parents tragically dying of cancer in the same year, leaving him grieving and left to care for his younger brother. Oprah fans and snooty lit-crit types fawned.

Myself, I didn't care for it. The dying-parents thing was terribly, genuinely sad, especially when you throw in the orphaned-little-brother bit. But after the truly heartbreaking intro, the rest seemed kind of like a fairly flat narrative. I occasionally found myself intrigued to see how Eggers got along as a twentysomething parent, but for the most part nothing in the book seemed to match the opening. And for all the laudatory commentary about his writing style, it seemed to me like verbal gymnastics--enormously skilled but expressively kind of empty. My verdict was that Eggers was 80% hype, 20% content--not in the same league as David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen.

Wait, is there a link to soccer here? Oh right: Eggers has an essay in the Observer about soccer, with a sure-to-annoy title, "American sports are played with the hands. Using your feet is for commies." Once again, we're treated to an explanation for why soccer will never catch on in the US. As a prior matter, though, let me point out that the soccerphiles in the US who are going apopleptic over the title are missing the point. Eggers makes it abundantly clear that he finds the "soccer is for commies" thesis ignorant and moronic. The gym teacher who first propounded the theory to Eggers is given the unsubtle pseudonym "Moron McCheeby" in case you had any doubts. Jim Rome may say something like this and expect to be taken seriously; Eggers obviously does not.

That said, what of Eggers' take on soccer's inevitable failure to gain popularity in the US? His first point is that the US only likes sports it can claim to have invented: baseball, NFL football, basketball. This seems partly right. The big three are (more or less) our own inventions. But is this a correlation or a causation? Hockey is doing fine, and it's plainly not American-made (if anything, it's the brainchild of our sissy neighbors to the north). Nor do Americans have any problem with golf or tennis, each of which have European origins. At the very least, it seems that the US is open to sports that aren't of native extraction, even if they may not be included in the pantheon.

The second point is a bit more interesting: Americans detest soccer because of the diving. This seems true to an extent. I've spoken to soccer-hating friends who raise diving as an example of why they don't like the sport. But this seems to get the causation mixed up again. Most people who hate soccer just hate it; then they go nuts over diving as a way of cementing their preexisting opinion. There is, as any marginally informed observer knows, no necessary correlation between diving and soccer. Some soccer cultures--Latin ones, in particular, this fan of Portuguese soccer admits with regret--feature frequent and egregious diving. The British leagues and MLS, by contrast, do not.

Nor does the presence of diving necessarily ruin a sport for Americans. I was watching the Lakers/Sonics game on Friday night and heard the announcers praise Kobe for learning to "sell a foul"--that is, exaggerate contact and flop on the floor to draw a whistle. In other words, dive. He had, the commentators reported, learned this skill from the true master, Magic Johnson. One sport's praiseworthy craftiness is another sport's damnable cheating.

But it takes a theory to beat a theory, so what do I think about the future of soccer in the US? First, I think it will remain a niche sport, much closer in scope and popularity to tennis than to NFL football. But as soccer specific stadiums proliferate, MLS edges closer to financial self-sufficiency, with profitability lurking just around the corner. Second, the long-term viability of MLS will eventually see American soccer stars enjoy a B-level kind of celebrity. Landon Donovan is getting close to this level now. He's not Barry Bonds, but perhaps someday will be more like an Andre Agassi. The better the US does at the World Cup, the faster this transition will be. Third, as globalization continues to break down national borders, soccer will creep into the American national consciousness, whether the haters like it or not. During WC1990, I would never have heard of Diego Maradona unless my soccer-obsessed Spanish teacher had mentioned him. These days, world soccer stars, teams, and events are a marginal, but noticeable part of our sports culture. Among students at my school, people at the gym, and strangers walking along the street I encounter with increasing frequency jerseys advertising Arsenal, Real Madrid, or Man United. Admittedly, I'd rather see DC United or the Fire repesented sartorially, but it's a move in the right direction, and it's a move that's inevitable.


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