Hating soccer used to be our thing, a distinctly American trait. But every four years, more and more of us get suckered into treating it like a real sport. Here’s why MATT TAIBBI’s holding out.
Hating soccer used to be our thing, a distinctly American trait. But every four years, more and more of us get suckered into treating it like a real sport. Here’s why I’m holding out.
By Matt Taibbi
The American Empire has had a bad run in the past few decades. We’re deep in debt to former colonial vassals in China and the Middle East, our kids are fat video-game addicts who think reality shows are culture, and we’ve been listening to the same classic rock for 30 years now.
We’re in decline, that can’t be denied, but until recently we still had one thing going for us: We didn’t watch the World Cup. Now we’re losing even that last bit of rugged individualism. More so-called Americans watched the last Cup final than watched that year’s World Series and NBA finals. And it is extremely likely that this summer’s World Cup in South Africa will again push past all but American football on the sports-ratings pantheon.
This is the culmination of a lengthy campaign by foreign occupying forces. The soccer people have been unloading their pods off freighters in port cities all across America for decades now, and it would be foolish to deny they’ve made progress here, particularly among our women. Moms want their kids to play soccer because in soccer, no child ever suffers gruesome individual failures like the last-inning, bases-loaded strikeout, and moreover nobody ever gets concussed, or has his femur snapped in half on the 50-yard line, or takes a puck to the teeth, or gets any kind of boo-boo at all, mental or physical. No, injuries just aren’t part of the game in soccer — although pretending to get hurt is, with even the greatest European players writhing around on the ground like gunshot victims every time someone so much as breathes on them.
A pronounced distaste for a game that is universally worshipped almost everywhere else on the planet used to be perhaps the single most obvious distinguishing characteristic of the American citizen. The same way Spanish Catholics used to smoke out marranos (forcibly converted Jews who continued to practice their religion in secret) by serving pork snacks with Communion, you could smoke out an American by sticking him in front of a World Cup match and watching as he struggled to stay awake through the first half. It wasn’t his fault. The rest of the world saw thrilling sport played at unfathomable skill levels; what he registered was a bunch of poncey Jordache models with 1980s hairdos running in circles for three hours, stopping only to whine and clutch their shins.
There are still many of us out there, but we’ll probably die off by the next generation. The world will not weep; we understand that. But for posterity’s sake, while the rest of you watch the Greatest Sporting Event in the World unfold in South Africa this summer, here’s what our dinosaur eyes will be seeing:
1. MEN WEARING CAPES
Look, I played Dungeons & Dragons in junior high. I even played it in high school, past the internationally recognized nerd-threshold age of 16. So I’m not down on nerds; I was a nerd. But even within the subset of nerds, there were nerds, and one of the surest signs of the nerd-within-nerds was that he wore a cape. There was always some kid who had one to go with his medieval tunic and his little leather pouch he kept for his “gold.” In college I witnessed a later version of this phenomenon: I knew a guy who on Friday nights dressed in the white turtleneck/double-breasted captain’s blazer of the guy in the Old Spice commercials. He thought he was a real ladies’ man; he would drop to his knees and gallantly kiss the hands of the quiet, studious girls who weren’t used to the attention. He wore a cape. And do you know who else wears capes? Soccer fans, especially soccer fans at the World Cup. They drape their national flags over their shoulders like Renaissance fashion accessories and walk around in them all day long, like extras milling around on the set of a Kenneth Branagh movie. With some of the more colorful flags (I’m thinking of South American nations like Bolivia), the cape-wearing soccer fan celebrating victory might easily remind you of a tranny karaoke singer — you know, the one belting out Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” from atop a float of giant bananas in the Mardi Gras parade. Just as there is no socially beneficial purpose of a concealed weapon, there is no excuse, ever, for a man in a cape. And yes, soccer people, we know about the Oakland Raiders fans, and we’re working on that.
We don’t really do original, team-specific songs in America. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” and “We Will Rock You” are the two stadium-anthem staples, while the Neil Diamond song “Sweet Caroline” has a bizarre joint-custody arrangement with both the Red Sox and the Mets. But as for songs we make up specifically for a sports team, it pretty much ends with “Fly Eagles Fly,” and as disturbingly Euro and soccer-like as that anthem is, we Americans encourage Philly fans to sing it often, because it keeps them from stabbing happier fans in frustration. Mostly, though, we don’t sing songs during our sports contests because we’re too busy watching the fucking game. But in soccer, since 99 percent of the time neither team is within five minutes of scoring, there’s plenty of time in the stands for singing. And, Christ, the songs they sing! I defy any Englishman to defend “Sven Sven Sven,” and what the fuck is the deal with “Vindaloo”? England, that’s your fight song? I bet the Germans and the Italians quake in their Euro-boots when they see 50,000 Englishmen chanting, “Can I introduce you please/to a lump of cheddar cheese?” Presented without commentary is the fact that one of the theme songs to the 2006 World Cup was an orchestral version of the Village People’s “Go West.”
3. PLAYERS TEARING THEIR CLOTHES OFF AFTER THEY SCORE
The old Spy magazine once did a list of the 50 most annoying things about rock music, and one of the notations involved guitarists who raise their eyebrows in shock during their solos, like they’re surprised at what an awesome note they just hit. Soccer managed to bring that exact same facial expression to sports, only it added a wrinkle — now when a player scores a goal, he drapes that stunned/surprised expression over his face, slaps his palms on his cheeks in amazement, and then bolts in some random direction tearing his shirt off, as if to say, “Do you believe what an awesome goal I just scored? I’m so amazed I can’t even stay dressed!” And this lovely soccer tradition is evolving, too, in a predictable direction. France’s Yoann Gourcuff kicked things off by stripping to a black Speedo (accentuated by his jersey, which he tied around his waist like an engageante) after a game in December 2008; Mirko Vucinic of AS Roma subsequently stripped to his tighty-whities and pranced around the stadium after a goal against rival Cagliari. I can see getting so stoked after a goal that you tear your jersey off in a rush of blind excitement. But taking one’s pants off is a lengthy, mechanical process. Wait a minute while I bend over to take these off. Okay, left leg out, right leg out, okay, they’re off.… Now I’m crazily excited again! Now I’m prancing! There is absolutely no doubt that the completely buck-naked, bouncing-balls dance is in soccer’s future.
Diving — the practice of mugging for penalties by rolling around on the ground and wailing like a three-year-old girl after being grazed on the shin — is considered clever sportsmanship in soccer, and many key Cup matches have been decided by the practice. Italy beat Australia 1–0 in the last Cup thanks to a penalty shot brought on by defender Fabio Grosso’s wounded-Stanislavsky act. Now, first of all, imagine the ragged poverty of a sport where the only score in the whole game comes from a grown man crying. Second, in America we consider whining like a bitch even during real injuries a crime against God, which is why, when I become sports ayatollah, my first act will be a fatwa against Vlade Divac for bringing this bit of soccerness to the pure Islam of our NBA. I have a simple solution to this problem: Soccer referees should all be issued cattle prods and motorcycle chains, and if any player writhes on the ground beyond 30 seconds, he should be gang-beaten within an inch of his life, A Clockwork Orange–style, while the crowd roars. If there’s a player who’s really injured, well, that’s just collateral damage. But when was the last time someone really got hurt in soccer? Oh, that’s right — it was when Alexi Lalas decided to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on this guy:
5. DAVID BECKHAM, MARTYR
Look, we like the British. Their sketch-comedy shows are fantastic, and they give us a great place to park our battleships. We look at England and see a once mighty commercial empire that has been reduced to a role as the world’s leading exporter of nature-show hosts, and we sympathize. And when British supercelebrities come to America to lose their accents and make gazillions of dollars delivering sterling Shakespeare-worthy performances in the shitty action movies we dump on the rest of the world, we usually encourage it. We know they have to come to Hollywood to make the real scratch — hell, they’re still burning peat bricks for heat in London, the poor bastards. But we draw the line at David Beckham and that preening goofball wife of his. We have no use for this guy; we want our $250 million back. He can’t even play anymore, even before he ruptured his Achilles (did he even fit in a game in Los Angeles, between all those fucking Armani shoots?) — and yet his “sideline presence” is all we’re going to hear about for as long as England is alive in the tournament, which mercifully won’t be for very long.
6. ZAKUMI THE ANTHROPOMORPHIZED LEOPARD
In America we treat the mascot question with tremendous gravity and have the world’s greatest scientists working round the clock to maintain a very high standard of mascot funniness. The World Cup, meanwhile, consistently produces the worst and most unfunny mascots in all of sports. In fact it can be argued that the all-time nadir of mascot history was reached at the 1974 Cup in Germany, when the mascot was two pubescent German boys in midriff-baring shirts with their arms around each other. That achievement was perhaps bested only by the design for the next Germany-based games, held in 2006: an unfriendly, stupid-looking lion named Goleo who, perhaps predictably, wore no pants. And it wasn’t an erotic kind of no-pants effect, but more disturbing and scary, like rounding a city street corner at night and seeing a bearded old homeless man staggering toward you in nothing but a T-shirt and socks. This mascot design was so upsetting to German soccer fans (the lion, among other things, is the symbol of rival Britain) that Nici, the Bavarian toy company that paid 28 million euros for the rights to Goleo, soon after had to file bankruptcy. The mascot for the 2010 South Africa games is an ambigendered, anthropomorphized leopard named Zakumi done in anime style with flowing green hair and green hot pants. Zakumi looks like a Japanimated import from the same horrifying cute-creepy netherworld that brought us notorious adult-scaring creatures like the Ewoks and the dwarflike Nelwyns from Willow. Between Zakumi and all the men in capes, South Africans will run away screaming into the night. Haven’t these people ever seen the Phanatic?
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.