American optimism explains refusal to embrace soccer


LOS ANGELES -- As soccer's World Cup approaches, the rest of the world is riveted, but the American sports public will no doubt continue to react with a collective yawn. Why hasn't soccer fever caught on here?

Theories have been offered: that soccer moms don't control the TV remote, that American television avoids sports that don't offer alluring timeouts for commercials, that soccer is too slow for an American audience, that not using arms or hands goes against our grain.

I suspect the answer lies elsewhere.

As Americans, we have always been optimistic, on or off the playing field. You've hit bottom? No big deal. Just break on through to the other side. The rest of the world, which has a more fatalistic view of life, believes that when you hit bottom, you just lie there.

It's our American optimism that's at the heart of why we don't take to soccer.

Think about it. Soccer is a 90-plus-minute game in which the final score, often enough, is 0-0, or perhaps 1-0. In a typical game, there are about 100 attempts to move the ball into scoring position. Of those, there are about 20 actual shots, half of which don't go anywhere near the goal. All that flailing and tackling and passing and running, and at the end of game, you've got just one lousy goal. If that.

One hundred plays. One possible score. That's a failure rate that Americans will not put up with. A soccer match is a cold slap in the face to the American assumption that hard work and cosmic justice will, in the end, achieve positive results.

When the fates don't reward skill and hard work, we Americans are outraged. We call it unfair. The rest of the world shrugs and says: That's what life is really like - for every 100 tries, you get one success. Maybe. If you're lucky.

Scoring, lots of it, confirms our American belief that when you perform well, the outcome should be successful. Look at our sports.

Basketball has a 50 percent scoring success rate, while baseball and football also have a great deal of scoring, or at least successful plays, like base hits and completed passes. This may be the reason that ice hockey - with its relatively low scoring and high frustration factor - has remained in the second tier of American sports, even when the matches are juiced up with fistfights. (You may fail at scoring a goal, but you can succeed at knocking your opponent's teeth down his throat. That, however, is only a partial validation of America's essential optimism.)

Yes, it's our optimism - our unshakable, Hollywood-reinforced belief that wherever there's a problem, there must be a solution - that keeps us from embracing soccer, a sport that is heartbreaking in its insistence that life is a series of broken plays. Soccer is a paean to the futility of expectations. It's a sport whose fans are resigned to the dark but realistic assumption that passion and effort and teamwork almost never yield any tangible results.

In short, soccer is quintessentially un-American.

More than anyone, Albert Camus - in such works as The Myth of Sisyphus - expresses the view that life is absurd, a series of broken plays, and does not necessarily reward those who deserve it. He says the struggle itself is heroic, irrespective of results. Mr. Camus, who played soccer and loved the sport, is supposed to have said that many of his understandings about life were drawn from lessons he learned on the soccer field.

No doubt, soccer would have been Sisyphus' sport of choice.

Roberto Loiederman, who grew up in Baltimore, is co-author of "The Eagle Mutiny." His e-mail is

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