why i love soccer and why most americans just can't get it
without playing favorites, it's safe to say a lot of sports excel at delivering to various areas: e.g. the endurance of marathoning vs. the skill of golf, vs. the power and speed of american or rugby football. but, though it takes consummate skill to handle a puck on skates at full speed, and you gotta be in shape to last an entire hockey game too, lets face it, those hockey players and their 90-second shifts aren't playing quite the same game as the peleton in the tour de france, nor is any of that quite like the challenge of hitting a 100-mph fastball with a 2" stick from a distance of 60 feet.
so, why do i love soccer, and why can't most americans get it?
current estimates of the distance covered by a professional soccer player during a world class match agree on up to around 10,000 meters. (over 6 miles, or 350 times up and down the full length of a regulation basketball court). yet, unlike the practice of most freely-substituting team sports, this endurance test is required of no fewer than 7 of the starting 11 players (allowing for 3 substitutes and the goaltender) all without commercial interruption. no matter how devastating the skill of an individual, (viva pele), or the speed and power they can generate on the field, all of it must stand together with their fitness and endurance to compete successfully at the highest level.
it's no wonder that the talented brazilians and argentinians prefer not to play at altitude, as their clear advantage in skill can be mitigated by a seventh mile of running, if their opponent is willing and capable to push them to it. jan helgerud et al. (norwegian university of science and technology in trondheim) measured the advantage given by cardiovascular fitness to on-field performance in a recent study of norwegian national team candidates. he showed, even at the highest levels, that fitness training makes just as much difference (actually, in many cases, more) as skills training. (so, when was the last time you saw manny ramirez run out a ground ball?) here, in soccer, is a fascinating intersection between everything that is to be loved about sport.
my point isn't to denigrate other sports. i love baseball and ice hockey and american football and bicycle racing and even the nice leisurely game of curling. (though not golf, with apologies to tiger fanatics everywhere, but that's a personal preference and not an editorial comment). my point is to remind those who might become lost in the doldrums of a 1-nil result that there is far more happening before their eyes than they are willing or perhaps capable to see. watch how the players relate to each other over the course of the match. see who is flagging and who is catching each turn just that much more quickly. see who wants it more.
americans like scoring. (heck, we've even bastardized our national pastime to introduce "designated hitters" because pitchers didn't hit enough home runs). our favorite basketballers are shooters (chamberlain over russell, though don't get me started about the errors intrinsic in that) and our favorite football play is the touchdown pass. (our 6 o'clock news replays would have us believe that these are the majority of each game). sure, premier league highlights are all about the goals too, but check out the player ratings from the matches, and try to correlate the ranks with the tallies, and you just can't do it. soccer is about something else.
soccer rewards fitness, endurance, speed, power, skill, and teamwork to a combined degree to which few sports can compare. ice hockey and rugby come closest, i think, at least to me, but soccer is the pinnacle.
until americans play the game and learn what they are seeing first-hand, i think they'll always be left to wonder why.