Insight and Erudition About Futbol


Soccer must have an equivalent of “Christmas and Easter Christians.” You know, the ones who only go to church twice a year. High Holiday Jews will recognize the term and sometimes even themselves. I suspect the equivalent, if there were one in soccer, would relate to those who don’t call the game football or who only follow it during the quadrennial World Cup. Either way it would mean Americans.

But we Americans are fast learners and we have made up for the last three years of inattention by vigorously saying “futbol,” “goooaaaallll,” “pitch” and “side” right along with those who wear scarves signifying allegiance to this or that Premier League club.

As American fans become more sophisticated, we knowingly discuss touches, #9’s, Barca, the Bundesliga, Serie A, Juventus, Pelé and the hand of God while looking askance at those who say Man U.

We evoke the look of people who have stepped in something especially loathsome at the mere mention of FIFA or Sepp Blatter and, of course we ask questions intended to show our insight and erudition. There is much to make up for after 47 months of complete inattention. Plus we get to show off and compete for higher levels of recognition.

The insight and erudition bar is unusually low thanks to Ann Coulter’s recent column, America’s Favorite National Pastime: Hating Soccer. Don’t click on it. It will just encourage her. Twenty-something women, who have learned all they know about futbol by consulting The Skimm for happy-hour talking points, rank higher on the insight and erudition index than Ann Coulter.

We don’t hate soccer, though we remain a bit weak at the higher end of the insight and erudition spectrum. We don’t hate it because our kids play it and we really don’t hate it because our national team is actually pretty good at it. We rank 13 in the world and we have just advanced out of “pool play” and into the “knockout stage” terms guaranteed to score many points for insight and erudition.

As we catch up, we seem to become sociologists who have both lost sight of that pesky coincidence/causation thing and missed the statistics class in which they talked about the amount of data needed to draw meaningful conclusions.

Do colonies do better than colonizers? Seven Central and South American teams made the knockout stage while Spain and Portugal did not. America and Nigeria are in, while England is out. A thumping by the formerly oppressed. Bucking the “oppressed-oppressor” tide, both France and Algeria are in and perhaps we should gloss over the continuing presence of France and Belgium along with Germany. The Dutch-leaning Belgians want to dump the French-leaning Belgians from their country so they qualify as self-oppressors, but there they are in the round of 16 about to play our side.

If there were brackets like March Madness (there probably are because there is a mammoth amount of betting on futbol), choosing by seeding would have fared poorly: 4 of the top 10 seeds were eliminated in pool play, and the knockout stage is not seeded at all. The third and fourth best of the teams remaining – Argentina and Switzerland – will face each other in the first round rather than the semifinals or finals as tennis-like seeding might require.

There remain some things Americans might never understand. Uruguayan star, Luis Suarez, was kicked out of the event (and more) for biting an Italian opponent. Biting?


Mike Tyson lost his boxing license for that and Michael Vick, who used dogs to do his biting, was jailed. This was the third bite for Mr. Suarez. Dogs have been put down for less. It might be a while before Americans grasp the concept of biting in sports but the rest of the world does not seem to approve either.

The flaw in the game that seems to deter most Americans from achieving the pinnacle of insight and erudition is diving (a.k.a. flopping or embellishing). It is an art form that requires the player bested in an encounter with his opponent to fall on the ground, grasp the offended part of his anatomy and writhe around hoping the referee will notice. If his acting is good enough, his team might get a free kick or the opponent might be warned or sent off. Mostly the acting is dreadful and totally unconvincing. Sometimes bit players bearing stretchers and medical bags are added to the theatrics.

The closest equivalent is screaming for Mom when your baby sister takes your toy, but somehow the officials and rule makers have not figured out how to deal with it. Though sanctions exist to deter such fakery, there are rarely imposed.

Geoff Foster, writing in the Wall Street Journal did some empirical research by watching the first 32 games of the World Cup for his article entitled The World Cup Flopping Rankings. Definitely click on it. It might encourage him. There were 302 flops in 32 games or almost 10 per game. Brazil was the most frequent offender (17) but Honduras wasted the most time (7’40”). The US is tied for 7th in frequency and is 5th in time wasting. Teams leading the games (who might benefit from running out the clock) led the flopping by 103 to 40 over those that were trailing.

Enter the sociologists wondering why such blatant victimhood is rewarded.

  • Soccer is mostly played in left leaning countries where mommies are expected to make things right.
  • Diving is like the more aggressive approach to hooking up often seen overseas. Try enough times and you might get lucky. And the occasional slap does not hurt that much.
  • Flopping is capitalism at its finest featuring risk and reward and highlighting individual skills in contrast to the game itself.
  • Insert your own theory here.

My guess: it sells. Those in charge of world futbol have concluded that flopping puts fannies in the stadium seats or next to the Cheetos bowl in front of the TV. Hockey could stop the fights. Basketball could stop the end-of-game endlessness. But they don’t.

There is a reason, but we might have to wait four more years to learn what it is.

8 Responses to “Insight and Erudition About Futbol”

Jack Manning, June 27, 2014 at 6:56 pm said:

One of your best pieces ever Haven. A great read, especially for someone who would rather stain my deck and watch it dry than a World Cup game. Keep up the entertaining and informative work.


Haven Pell, June 28, 2014 at 1:03 pm said:

The deck staining lobby is thrilled with your decision. Years of bribery and chicanery have finally paid off. The stain drying watchers are also pleased.


Arthur Drane Jr., June 27, 2014 at 10:18 pm said:

Insightful article Haven. The slow embrace of soccer by the United States reminds me of a saying I heard a few times while in the service. NIH (not invented here). Once something was labled NIH the chances that idea would be adopted were nil. Keep up the good work!


Haven Pell, June 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm said:

There is an article in WSJ about something called Outbox. It failed for just that reason.


Tim Graham, June 28, 2014 at 10:14 am said:

There is a super ultra quantitative model i saw on the internet:
Coffee drinking nations beat tea drinking nations beat soda drinking nations.
That is, until the USA unleash Ronaldo McDonald.


Haven Pell, June 28, 2014 at 1:00 pm said:

Tim, if you see it again please forward it to me.


Terry Vogt, June 30, 2014 at 7:18 pm said:

Haven, you carefully neglected to mention your many years of stardom as a striker at both St. Paul’s School and Harvard. I’ll never forget a goal you made freshman year at Harvard (seen from my normal vantage point on the bench) where your shot caromed off the goalie back to your chest and you ran the ball into the goal!

An interesting point can be made with respect to compensation for athletic prowess here in America, and a point about and our provincialism, I suppose. US pro atheletes in our major sports earn an average of $2.5 million per year (high of $5.2 million in the NBA and low of $1.9 million in the NFL). Major League Soccer players average a grand sum of $50,000 a year. So how do we train kids to play soccer at levels that would get them into the European system, a system that pays ABOVE the US average to its pros?

I’m sure US soccer mavens have been discussing these issues ever since Pele came to play for the NY Galaxy in the mid-seventies…


Haven Pell, June 30, 2014 at 10:05 pm said:

Thank you for your comment and for remembering. I always favored the low-skill, high-bull-in-chinashop approach.


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