Other Reviews of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism
"Boredom just one reason Americans don't love soccer"
A few years ago, an English sportswriter reporting on a relatively high-scoring soccer game dismissed it as "mere basketball.'' Such a sentiment would be easily understood in most parts of the world but regarded with amazement in America, where many consider basketball exciting and soccer boring.
Why are some American reactions to soccer so different? Why didn't soccer take hold here a century ago as it did elsewhere?
Andrei S. Markovits and Steven L. Hellerman take on these questions in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. Both authors are academics in the social sciences and both are fans of American sports, although only Markovits is a soccer fan.
The result is a book that is of interest not only to soccer fans but to those interested in American culture. It is packed with information on the early days of organized sport in this country (which, surprisingly, included cricket), the numerous soccer leagues that have been founded only to disappear a few years later, the rise of women's soccer in recent years, the American public's reaction to the 1994 World Cup, and many illuminating contrasts between sports in America and sports elsewhere. Even a soccer hater will learn something.
Nevertheless, the authors begin with some odd premises. They believe, for example, that the various ways in which the United States is exceptional -- that is, the ways in which it is different from other countries -- are all related, and they conclude bizarrely that America rejected socialism for the same reason it rejected soccer.
America rejected socialism, they argue, because of the bourgeois nature of American society. But what that has to do with the rejection of soccer remains a mystery.
According to Markovits and Hellerman, Americans' rejection of soccer is, to a lesser degree, also a result of ambivalent feelings about England during the 19th century. (Recall that during the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol.)
This seems more sensible. If our political system was superior to everyone else's, it was only natural for us to conclude that the sports we invented were superior as well.
Happily, the authors treat both American sports and soccer with respect, but that means they mostly ignore the usual explanation given by Americans for our rejection of soccer -- that it's boring.
This argument was made vehemently and at length in Sports Illustrated in July by Frank Deford. Soccer fans in America constantly hear this criticism -- that their sport is boring and that it is particularly boring because few goals are scored. While the authors mention this a number of times, they refrain from confronting it directly.
But if the problem is the low scoring, then why isn't indoor soccer, which has more scoring than the outdoor variety, more popular? Why do cricket and rugby, both high-scoring games, lag even soccer in popularity in the United States?
Perhaps low scoring is not the real problem.
Offside is the first book to explore America's antipathy toward soccer. Though flawed, it is worth reading.
Even the most hardened soccer hater will have to acknowledge that soccer does one thing very well, something that seems rather important these days: It provides us the patriotic opportunity to cheer for our national team, decked out in red, white and blue.
Please also visit Andy Markovits' official University of Michigan website.
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