Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is Soccer More American than Football?

When I was a boy, my grandfather, who fought in Europe in World War II, told me that the U.S. won largely because of the G.I.'s ability to think on his feet, to make due with what he had, to take personal initiative and get the job done. I was told that the Germans, on the other hand, were so encumbered by their strict hierarchy and their blind obedience to orders that when the command chain (or the supply chain) broke down, they couldn't cope.

While I think the G.I. winning with bubble gum and shoe polish, a la McGyver, is largely a myth, the story nevertheless embodies a certain valued American trait, namely the ability to creatively improvise, to think on one's feet, to get the job done.

Which brings me to football and soccer.

Football, as we discussed before, because of the rules allowing for unlimited substitutions, favors extreme specialization. Players rotate in and out based on plays called by coaches and coordinators and then are given a specific assignment on each play. With the exception of the quarterback (who has a list of options to run through on pass plays), other players do what they are told with only limited options (depending on coverage a receiver may cut his route off, or go deep; a lineman may block high or low; but these are extremely limited and well-defined parameters). Whether a defense blitzes or drops back into coverage is entirely dictated by the chain of command sitting in booths overhead or standing on the sidelines. Football is a sport where labor is constantly overseen by management. Seen in this light, football lacks the kind of spontaneous innovation G.I.s and Americans pride themselves on.

Soccer on the other hand (that evil Socialist sport), by the simple fact that players are forced into playing offense and defense, breeds a sort of spontaneous improvisation that should make Americans proud. Given that there are few breaks in the action, it is hard for coaches to have the kind of play by play micromanagement that exists in football, so soccer players have a bit more freedom to experiment and create.

Here is an example from last weekend's MLS Cup Final.

If we think of America as a corporate nation, where labor should do what the manager in the panopticon tells it to do, then Football is as American as turkey on Thanksgiving. But if America is more about creativity and improvisation, maybe we really should embrace the European game... in order to be more American.

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the football and apple pie.


SM Sprenger said...

good post, but why soccer? baseball satisfies the attributes you're looking for: you've got to play offense and defense, no rotating in and out of the game, involves many skills (way more than soccer), must be able to think quickly on your feet, must even know statistical details about players to anticipate strengths and weaknesses,etc. And it happens already to be American. The one thing very un-American about soccer is allowing ties. We must have a winner.

Corry Cropper said...

Though we could debate the amount of creativity involved in various sports, you're right, of course, about the tie being un-American. And soccer is also un-American because there are no TV timeouts.

Anonymous said...

As a former "Blocking Tight End" for the Murray State Racers football team, I have to agree with you Corry that football's specialization has something very Mussolinian about it. Just look at the long-snapper-- a guy who makes $450K per season simply for quickly and accurately hurling the ball between his thighs to the punter or holder (two other specializations). NFL (and NCAA) teams only roster one; so, if this guy is injured, teams have to think twice about punting or kicking an otherwise obvious field goal.

I also agree with Scott in that it is hard to make the case for soccer as American. C'mon... the MLS??? But, I'll see your baseball and raise you basketball. If creativity, individualism and the ability to make plays in a break-down situation are your criteria, then BASKETBALL (despite Frank Foer's "taint of the ghetto" remark) is the great American game.

No ties, unbelievable athleticism, larger-than-life players AND Dr. Naismith's game is entirely exportable to the rest of the world (Did you see the Olympics--parity is developing): now that's American!

Corry Cropper said...

Good point. Basketball, unlike football, and even more than baseball, has exported well. And since America is enamored with "spreading" things (democracy, free-market, dung, etc.), basketball may be the closest sporting equivalent.

My point in this post was less to argue soccer as the ultimate American sport than to suggest it may be *more* American than football....

SM Sprenger said...

So American, in fact, that we can't recognize it as such??

The original point was that Americans, generally unconstrained by fossilized social hierarchies, traditions and rules, tend to be more inventive and resilient than European counterparts in times of uncertainty, such as battle. Football doesn't reflect this trait whereas soccer does... Bob and I are merely providing alternative examples where you can find an American sports analogy that works (to the extent that any of these analogies are significant!). In fact, even in football there is a lot of improvisation...

Maybe you could take this in another direction, since we're just making stuff up, and say that the bureaucratic, highly-specialized and technologized game of football reflects our shortcomings at waging war. You go back to WWII. But the two most recent (real) wars--Viet Nam and Iraq--have exposed real weaknesses in our military. The war in Iraq, for example, which was dialed in long-distance from Washington by Rumsfeld and Cheney, left no room for improvisation on the ground. The generals had merely to follow orders, although the "playbook" clearly did not correspond to the Iraqis' defensive strategy.

Maybe we're no longer as American as we think? Maybe we're riding on the residue of an obsolete myth?

Robert J. Hudson said...

No, Corry, your original point is well taken: football's (over-)specialization makes it difficult for improvisation to effectively enter into question. Sure, there are freaks of nature like Barry Sanders and Walter Payton who are able to improvise using their unparalleled athletic talent. However, when a team loses, it is rare to blame an individual for his lack of heat-of-the-moment prowess. Losses and failures are usually chalked up to "a poor game plan," "a bad play" or, more commonly, "poor execution." So, yes, Corry, football is a well-thought-out, finely-tuned plan of attack that is SUPPOSED to be immune to individual error or improvisation.

Soccer, however, may be OVERLY improvisational. Some tactics on the pitch can be called "Guerrilla" at best. Che Guevara banners and hooliganism really are misfits in American culture.

In a brief response to Scott: good point about being no longer as American as we think. The colonial Bostonians were a fine example of hooliganism! Also, concerning war and football, not too long ago, an NFL team hired a former military air assault tactician to design their passing routes. They finished the season near the bottom in total offense. He alors...

Corry Cropper said...

Yes, you're right Scott. The individual initiative may be an outdated myth if I had to go back 60 years to dig it up. This discussion also depends on which American myth we choose to bring up: if it's American efficiency and organization, then football is the sport; if it's American integrity ("I chopped down the cherry tree") then maybe golf; if it's rugged individualism, then maybe mountain climbing.... pick your myth, pick your sport.

My favorite line: "Maybe we're no longer as American as we think."

I don't know who I am anymore.

Bob, do I sense a hooligan "exceptionalism" post coming on?

SM Sprenger said...

As for American drug culture...maybe we turn to cycling??