Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Beautiful Game
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The Beautiful Game 06/29/2010 - 5:35 PM

Jwt My soccer career ended very early. I was about 12, and I was playing a two-on-two game in one of the unused, semi-public yards that gave the kids in my neighborhood a little room to run. I had a breakaway (at least that's what we call it in basketball). I ran toward the goal—two baseball gloves lined up about 15 feet apart—while my teammate and opponents lagged behind. When I looked back, I saw that they’d given up altogether. This must have thrown me off, because as I came near the goal, I had trouble controlling the ball and keeping it moving forward. In my frustration and anxious desire to score, I finally just picked it up and hurled it through.

Listening to the reactions of my fellow Americans to this year’s World Cup, I’m beginning to think that my story could serve as a metaphor for our relationship with the sport. Frustration is the watchword: “Nothing ever happens.” “You think there’s going to be a good play, and then someone messes it up.” “I turn my head for a second and miss the only goal.”

And it’s true, this time around the World Cup has made me believe that the fundamental problem with soccer is that it’s just too hard (message to the sport’s rule-makers: it would help if you could use your hands). It’s too hard to control the ball long enough to score, which leads to the aspect of the game that Americans don’t get: The total lack of results. In baseball, you get some kind of result with each at bat; in the NBA, you see two points scored on each of roughly 100 trips down the court; in football, teams can sustain many drives all the way down the field and into the end zone. To us, a suspiciously large number of soccer’s results—its goals—look like random occurrences, the products of a lucky bounce off a goalkeeper’s hands or a dubious call that leads to a penalty kick. On paper, we know the sport can’t be all luck—Brazil’s five Cups prove it—but in practice it can seem that way to our untrained eyes.

This year, like any tennis fan, I’ve watched the World Cup, soccer’s biggest event, in tandem with tennis’ biggest event, Wimbledon. Some days I’ve had tennis on one screen on my computer, and soccer on a screen behind it—you can hear the vuvuzelas buzzing away back there. Like rugby, croquet and badminton, tennis and soccer each got their formal start in Victorian England (cricket also went international during this time). The rules of soccer were codified there in 1863; tennis was invented there in 1873. Why this sports explosion? The cricket writer and historian C.L.R. James says that once democracy became rooted in the West through the 18th and 19th century, it quickly became clear what the people wanted more than anything else: They wanted games.

Tennis, invented as a way to sell sets of racquets and balls to the masses and capitalize on the craze for garden-party activities, was taken up by private clubs and became an elite sport. Soccer, played at elite English public schools in the 1800s, went mass all around the world. All around the world, that is, except in the U.S. Here, soccer comes with an elite flavor. Where tennis is a symbol of wealth, soccer in the States is a symbol of liberal open-mindedness, kind of like joining a CSA. Where I grew up, the kids who played it all went to a private, craft-loving, hippie-ish elementary school (think cubbyholes instead of lockers). Where I live now, in Brooklyn, it’s considered a healthier and safer alternative to baseball or American football.

Alternating between the World Cup and Wimbledon over the last week, it’s been hard to believe that the two games came from the same place and time. In soccer, fans live with long stretches where no goals are scored or shots taken. Tennis is nothing but results; something is decided every minute. Soccer is about the quick, shocking burst into the goal that seems to come from nowhere. Tennis is a slow but inexorable accumulation of points. Soccer is a gray area; was he pushed or did he dive? Tennis is clearly marked; the ball is either in or out, and unlike soccer we use the technology at hand to prove it one way or the other. Half of the fun of soccer seems to be crowd participation, whether it’s singing, calling for your opponent’s blood, or blowing a kazoo. Tennis fans are forbidden from making any noise while play is going on. Self-expression versus hushed reverence, messiness versus order: Like C.L.R. James might have said, if democracy does nothing else, it gives every class and group of people their game.

I love the fact that Americans don’t care about soccer. It proves that nothing in the universe is universal, and that a game really is nothing more than a game. (I also wonder if the passion the rest of the world feels for it would be quite as deep if America started to dominate it.) I love that I can see What’s-His-Name Messi on TV and just say, “Oh, there’s that guy, I think I’ve seen him somewhere before…” like any idiot in the U.S. who doesn’t know Michael Jordan from Derek Jeter. It makes me realize that having to care about sports stars can be oppressive, and a little pathetic. It’s nice not to be in awe of at least one group of millionaire athletes. (Except Maradona, of course. He’s must-see TV.)

Can we say which is better, tennis or soccer? One teaches solo resourcefulness, the other teamwork. One speaks to group identity; the other singles out the individual as the most important unit. Both are cruel, both can be decided by inches, both require a razor-thin balance of patience and aggression. Both produce their share of egomaniacs and gentlemen. Both have stuck with their Victorian rules and traditions and avoided drastic changes to make themselves more “fan-friendly” (i.e., dumber). It may try a new ball every now and then, but if any sport proves that you don’t need much scoring to keep fans—billions of fans—interested, it’s soccer. People don't seem to be so easily bored as our entertainment industry likes to think. The most popular entertainment on earth is the one where, on the surface, the least happens.

Whatever soccer's mysterious appeal, I’ll always believe that tennis is the superior sport. It helps that I know how to play it, and how to watch it. I have no idea how to watch a soccer game. Every four years I start to learn, I start to appreciate the moves and dribbles and runs and passes even when they lead to nothing. But after a month it disappears on me again. I admire soccer for, metaphorically, admitting that futility is part of life—the best-laid plans of its players almost always go astray. But, and maybe this is an American thing, I also find that admission depressing. What I like about tennis is that you get to use every part of yourself to succeed—your brain, your legs, your heart—and you have to become a master of every element of it. You do the serving and the volleying; you play offense and defense. And every second game, you get to be in total control. You get to dictate how a point, and those few seconds of your life, will begin. Nothing seems futile when you step up to serve. The ball is in your hand.


Posted by Rajat Jain 06/29/2010 at 06:09 PM

Loved the article! Thoroughly enjoyed it. Yeah, I agree with all the arguments you made about tennis being the superior game to soccer ;) ... and especially that even without being goalless, you can drive the attention of billions of fans! :D

And I'm not an American. But it does help (in my lack of interest of soccer) that India is not among the powerhouses of soccer.

Posted by abcabc 06/29/2010 at 06:11 PM

Charming enough, language as good as ever, but the problem with Americans (or others) who admit to not knowing the sport and not getting the appeal of it is that they still think they're very clever in pointing out certain things seen by those of us who live with the sport every day, every year, as cliches or stereotypes. So much is written about football that someone who tunes it in, inbetween tennis rallies, every four years, is not going to come up with a fresh angle on a light-hearted text. Each time a season starts someone who's not that much into footie tries to capture the outsider perspective through essays or petites or monologues -- connections have been drawn between football and, I dare say, every single thing in the universe, nevermind sport.

Good attempt, anyway.

Posted by Just A Reader 06/29/2010 at 06:22 PM

"Can we say which is better, tennis or soccer"

One sport is not "better" than another. All sports have their fans, and arguing
which is superior is like arguing over favorite foods, i.e. pointless.

Posted by Tennisozzy 06/29/2010 at 06:31 PM

Soccer and grass tennis are very similar: It´s all about waiting for those one or two moments that decide the outcome of the match. Most of the time the chances don´t turn into goals, and the break points are not converted, but the sports would be much duller if there were tons of goals and breaks of serve. If there were goals and breaks of serve all over the place, they wouldn´t stand out as great moments, and they wouldn´t feel vital to the outcome the same way that they do now.

Posted by bhabani 06/29/2010 at 06:42 PM

Nice article ... I do like tennis that soccer so .. i can relate

Posted by bhabani 06/29/2010 at 06:43 PM

Nice article ... I do like tennis than soccer so .. i can relate

Posted by noleisthebest 06/29/2010 at 06:50 PM

Football is beer, tennis is champagne.
Pour me a Bollinger , garcon!

Posted by Andrew 06/29/2010 at 06:59 PM

I like to term N American sports "marsupial sports" - football, baseball and basketball. I also enjoy the way that books and documentaries on "The 50 Greatest Moments in World Sports History" usually have 40 marsupials - the Catch, the Drive, the Shot Heard Round The World, Carleton Fisk, The Immaculate Reception, and so on.

Posted by Yolita 06/29/2010 at 07:08 PM

Beautifully written, as usual, Steve.

And all those clever comments, which look witty at first glance, only showcase your complete lack of understanding of the spirit of the game of football (I couldn't call it soccer if I tried! lol). That lack of understanding is, in my opinion, what's preventing the USA from achieving better results at the World Cup.

It was quite a charming piece, but next time I would stick to tennis! :)

Posted by Martin 06/29/2010 at 07:10 PM

"Whatever soccer's mysterious appeal, I’ll always believe that tennis is the superior sport. It helps that I know how to play it, and how to watch it. I have no idea how to watch a soccer game."

Admitting that, how can you be the judge on what sport is "better" (a rather pointless discussion anyway, as has been pointed out)?
It's like saying: "I'll always believe Beethoven to be better musician [over, let's say, John Lennon]. It helps that I have a classical education in music and thus know how to listen to Beethoven, and how to enjoy his music. I have no idea how to enjoy John Lennon."
Such comparisons just don't make a whole lot of sense, do they?

Not that I am equating tennis with Beethoven... ;)

Posted by Daedra 06/29/2010 at 07:27 PM

"The most popular entertainment on earth is the one where, on the surface, the least happens." Time to get a crash course, Mr. Tignor. Things happen every second in soccer -- one day, you will see the light.

Posted by Osegura 06/29/2010 at 07:38 PM

"What I like about tennis is that you get to use every part of yourself to succeed—your brain, your legs, your heart—and you have to become a master of every element of it. You do the serving and the volleying; you play offense and defense. And every second game, you get to be in total control. You get to dictate how a point, and those few seconds of your life, will begin. Nothing seems futile when you step up to serve. The ball is in your hand"

I found this part beautiful as it remembers us how difficult is to be on a tennis court and, at the same time, how you are the only one who dictates how things go. On the other hand, I´m not a huge football fan (stop calling it soccer as people from the United States of America call it - and also stop calling your country America as there are a bunch of countries in the American Continent - ) but I appreciate the beauty of the sport and I marvel at the tactics used and the speed of the game. Both sports are beautiful and both deserve respect. It does not make sense to argue about which one is the better or the most cruel or beautiful as both have different characteristics and for the same reason, in most cases, different fans.

Posted by Orpheo 06/29/2010 at 07:41 PM


Don´t you find it a tad ironic that the games biggest stars (Roger, Rafa, Murray) are all very big football (soccer) fans. And i am pretty sure that they know the value of technique, stamina et al...

The basic reason why Americans dont get it is that in their education they never follow a team. The media gives them American Footbal, NBA, MLB and even Hockey, but no real football team to follow and call your own. (I believe you are an eagles fan because you were brought up in Philadelphia).

In some sense In the USA Soccer (as you call it) and Tennis, suffer from the same thing. Overexposure of other sports, and being snubbed by the media.

Believe me you can get very excited and in awe with a good game of soccer, just as you can get bored with a bad game of tennis.

Posted by fedexfan 06/29/2010 at 07:45 PM

Interesting. I just had a conversation with a colleague of mine before i read your article. And, we seemed to arrive to a similar opinion about soccer. An hour & a half of kicking & running around to produce a scoreless draw seems exasperating.

Although, if somebody were to tune into wimbledon every year & watch no other tennis, he or she will be bored to death. It always the williams sisters in womens front & always federer in men's front. Before this era, it was either sampras or steffi graf. Boring!

And personally, I hate watching NFL & NBA because there are too many rules, too many timeouts & too many bloody comercials.

You get my drift, no game is better than the other. The very excercise of comparision is pointless. To each, his or her game is better.

Posted by Marcelo 06/29/2010 at 07:46 PM

I love both!!! Love to watch and to play both!!!
But, soccer drives me much more crazy for sure ... the better comparation between The World Cup and the tennis world would be possible only if the davis cup was played every four years! To cheer for your nation as a team is much different than to cheer for one guy that represents your country.

Posted by alex 06/29/2010 at 08:01 PM

Football !!!!!!!!!!!

get it??????????

it is called Football !!!!

how can somebody travel the world & be so ignorant ???

Posted by Ammie 06/29/2010 at 08:05 PM

I have always loved football and tennis. Without comparing, and based on your article, I just have this to say: you know very little about football.

Posted by pablo 06/29/2010 at 08:09 PM

It's football not soccer, IMHO. What you guys refer to as "football" it's known as handegg by over 5.000 million people. Good luck with ypour isolation and disdain towards the decimal system.

Posted by mightywind 06/29/2010 at 08:14 PM

Good article, timely topic. Unfortunately, I think the US will need to win the World Cup before it enjoys any kind of mainstream popularity with its citizens. Comparing team sports to individual sports is kind of difficult (doubles notwithstanding).

The last second goal by Brandon Donovan should have been the Shot Heard Around The States, but since it did not occur in the knockout rounds it seemed to pass after a brief flurry of notice. I personally find that the more I watch football the more interesting it is. The attack can be very complex (particularly when the Brazilians are playing).

But nothing gets me like tennis. And when it's special (Federer/Nadal 2008 Wimbledon or the recent 70-68 match) the world pays attention, including the US.

Posted by mightywind 06/29/2010 at 08:17 PM

apologies, I meant Landon Donovan, of course...

Posted by Dunlop Maxply 06/29/2010 at 08:36 PM

Well, having had a crash course in soccer since my oldest son picked it up eight years ago, and now having experienced both top flight junior tennis, and top club junior "soccer." I've thought about this way, way too much.

First of all, the U.S. is in the middle of a soccer-boom that rivals the tennis boom of the 1970s. Where once the public tennis courts were full, now there are pick up soccer games and ever-growing leagues of kids.

However, the main way to approach this issue is that all sports are by nature ridiculous in their own way. For some, the fact that tennis simply does not provide enough of an advantage to gross speed or strength dooms it to almost golf-like-non-sport status. Not for some on this board though.

The thing is this. The starting point for understanding soccer is that it is the one sport that almost every country in the world is reasonably good at. I dare say its really the only sport in that category. Tennis is an individual game in any event, and poorer nations will be waiting a long time for the conditions required to nurture junior tennis players to exist. Hockey, another great game, requires ice, and some expensive equipment, which eliminates much of the world right there.

The second thing to remember is the key to soccer, the absolute key, is the low scoring system. The fact that it is so difficult to score means that lesser teams have a legitimate chance at either tying or winning. This does not really matter to an "outsider" observing a game with no stake. But when the U.S. has to play, say England, a match which is the equivalent of the Nebraska Cornhuskers playing whoever the hell "Florida Atlantic" is -- Nebraska wins 49-3. The U.S. ties England 1-1. But, this only matters once you care. And believe me, once you care, those 90 minutes just fly by.

Soccer in the U.S. will probably never be an obsession like it is in the rest of the World, because our culture is already full of other established sports. But there is certainly space for a "big 4" here.

There is one direct comparison where tennis loses out, though. Unlike tennis, soccer is just too easy and fun to play as a beginner.

Posted by concrete 06/29/2010 at 08:47 PM

Nice article, but once again is an american writing about he doesnt get, you make it clear that you appreciate soccer, but tennis being a superior game is just biased, i love both sports, I prefer tennis since is easier to find a friend to played it, while football you need 22 players.

Posted by Miguel Seabra 06/29/2010 at 08:51 PM

I have the opposite opinion, Steve -- what makes football more appealing (and I repeat: football, futebol, futbol -- where you actually use the foot to play/hit the ball) is exactly the fact that there are not that many goals, making each one of them much more valuable. If a pro match ends 14-2 (and it never happens) that's because one of the team's defense was awful and after the 9th goal it wouldn't almost matter anymore...

Don't get me wrong, the more goals the merrier; goals are the salt and pepper of football and there used to be a top scorer in Portugal that compared the sensation of scoring a goal to having an orgasm -- but your opinion goes to show the huge cultural differences: in US sports the score is changing all the time, there's a permanent state of excitation (no, I'm not saying it's like multiple orgasms), but to score is such a common thing that you can go away and come back that it won't matter that much, while in soccer if you do the same you can miss the deciding goal that -- because it's rarer -- will raise those levels of excitement higher than in a US sport.

Plus, there is plenty of time to appreciate the subtilities of a match, the tactics, the technique -- it also has to do with a different appreciation of time.

But it really is strange the fact that football is so loved everywhere else and struggles to get the same kind of attention in the US. Who's wrong, everybody else or just the US?

Posted by Rikfast 06/29/2010 at 09:16 PM

Calling soccer football is just like calling the US America. America covers a raft of countries and Football covers a raft of sports. American football, gaelic football, Australian rules foot ball etc. as well as soccer.

I think the reason I don't 'get' soccer is that I don't play it and therefore don't get the nuances of the game. The 5/10 mins of highlights can be good though and some matches and teams are more exciting than others(Slovakia/Italy 2nd half. Liverpool)

Posted by Precious Dee 06/29/2010 at 09:38 PM

Wow Steve. Disappointing. Your latest offering is a defiant justification of the disdain you feel for a sport that you know very little about. I've no clue what the NH- this or that is all about but I don't go around proclaiming this to the world at large as if that was something to be proud of in the hopes that all who don't join me in my ignorance will be seen as idiots. It warms you up that you don't know football or its stars? The footballing world in general doesn't care. So provincial. FYI only 7 teams/countries have ever won the WC but that's not an insurmountable problem for other nations because some things are bigger than individual nations. Sometimes you have to look beyond yourself. But only America matters to America, no wonder you're always out of sync with the rest of us. Disappointing

Posted by Clay 06/29/2010 at 09:40 PM

First off, the "best" argument is a volatile one, as evident by the comments here. Almost as volatile as arguing that one religion is best. So I'll leave that point aside.

As for soccer in the US, I have a number of observations

- It's first and foremost a cultural thing. Soccer isn't big here because it never has been. It is elsewhere because of the cultural momentum it carries, on television, in the news, and at the water cooler / bar. And because of that:

- We don't know the strategic minutia. Like Steve, I don't know how to watch a soccer match. When I am able to watch one with people who really know the game and the players (rarely), it is much more enjoyable than watching one on my own.

- There is a huge barrier to entry, on many levels. As a player or a club, the high caliber of players elsewhere in the world put us at a huge disadvantage. As a fan, well, just some of the previous comments say it all ... "how can somebody travel the world & be so ignorant" ... "one day, you will see the light" ... "Americans (or others) [sic] think they're very clever in pointing out certain things seen by those of us who live with the sport every day" ... AKA, your opinion doesn't matter because you don't know anything about the game. I smell a vicious cycle here.

Soccer is indeed experiencing a renaisance in the US. A lot of it has to do with the increasing latino influence on our culture - another illustration of why diversity is incredibly important, IMO. I absolutely love football/baseball/basketball/hockey, but I bleed neon green, and I get just as frustrated with the stepchild status of tennis in our sports coverage that the soccer folks do about the respective status of their beloved sport.

Personally, though, I just can't get into a sport where a match could possibly end in a draw. I guess that's the american in me!

Posted by tal88pro 06/29/2010 at 10:08 PM

Amazing how much flak one can get for expressing an opinion.What pleases me is that an American sports writer has actually heard of CLR James and appears to have read Beyond The Boundary. This book is probably the greatest book on sports ever written.

Posted by Calvin 06/29/2010 at 10:19 PM

Guess what other awesome game was invented in the UK? Yes, foosball. 1922.

Posted by MZK 06/29/2010 at 10:36 PM

Comparing an individual sport to a team sport? I don't get it, Steve. But okay.

As someone whose two favorite sports are tennis and (int'l) futbol, I realize that part of the appeal for me is the playing under one's flag each involves. The arbitrary nature of collecting a random group of talented players and deciding they play for New York (or Manchester or Madrid) turns me off; one week, we hate Roger Clemens, and the next week we're supposed to love him because now he's pitching for us, to give an example from the past decade. In tennis you support a player on his or her own merits and (perceived) personality, or for their given nationality, or some combination of both; so while club football/soccer doesn't grab me very much, the World Cup (and regional competitions like the Copa America and the Euro Cup) really does. These are players bonded together by coming from the some place - dare I say patriotism? - rather than happening to draw big salaries from the same club owner. Now, one could argue that nationalism is just as arbitrary, but I won't - at least in this context. ;)

At the end of the day, we go through this every four years. I think Americans are more intrigued by the World Cup than people seem to imagine, but more as a curiosity than a passion, and yes, once it comes and goes 80% of those who watched won't watch another soccer match for four years. But so what? Just like not using the metric system, or putting the month before the day in the date, or even the name soccer goes by, it's just one more thing that differentiates the US from the rest of the world. It is what it is.

I do get amused by some complaining I've seen online from people who are "sick of hearing about the World Cup." Really? Well, luckily for them, they only have to hear about it for one month every four years. Unlike, say, those of us who have to keep hearing about American Idol, and Lost, and Twilight, and whatever pop culture cash cow that keeps getting churned out and people willingly eat up. Presumably these are more acceptable topics to them. I think obsessing over college basketball/football is pointless (the pro leagues aren't enough?) but I don't try to rain on people's parades if they want to enthuse over March Madness.

Posted by Sher 06/29/2010 at 11:09 PM

It's a different game. I do prefer tennis, obviously, but I can see the appeal of football. It's not better or worse, it's different.

Posted by Nathan 06/29/2010 at 11:23 PM

One of the most poignant and high-quality articles this year, good work. I think youve been getting way too much harsh criticism lately.

Posted by Geoff B 06/29/2010 at 11:28 PM

Every now and then, a sportswriter from the US suggests a change to soccer that will increase the scoring (but if we used our hands, Steve, then we'd have to make the goal much smaller, and raise it much higher, and insist that players get a shot off more quickly, and force them to bounce the ball while they ran... come to think of it, that does sound like a pretty good sport).

Here's the thing: the appeal of soccer is the almost unbearable tension you feel while you watch it. If you're up a goal, it's brutal, if you're down a goal, it's excruciating. If you're experiencing a two goal deficit, hope is almost beyond the realm of possibility, but not quite.Why do I even watch it? Well, a win does produce a manic joy (think of Donovan's goal against Algeria), purchased through moments of profound disappointment. These emotions are given out in equal measures, as any Englishman will tell you (come on in, have a pint, and let me tell you about the misery of Cal's Rose Bowl drought some time).

By the way, a quick note about the word "Soccer" - the term originated in England, not in the US. It's a little ironic that Canada, the US, and Australia all have their own version of "football", while the non-english speaking world generally use a variant of the word "football" to mean, well, soccer.

Posted by thebigapple 06/29/2010 at 11:39 PM

Wow, CLR James....nice reference. I am surprised that is tossed into such an article.

To get soccerfootball is understand why Fed against the ropes and looking to lose his match goes into the bathroom break and asks how Switzerland is doing in their game. I suspect you do not understand that, Steve. It is not the world's most popular sports because it lacks charm, drama, emotion, techincal virtuosity.....and so on.

Posted by Edengrave 06/30/2010 at 12:34 AM

As others have said, A pointless exercise surely. I am sure you know that, as you are usually more cogent, so I didn't take it too seriously. Looking forward to your next post.

Posted by Andrew 06/30/2010 at 12:49 AM

Miguel Seabra: here are three reasons why soccer has not taken off in the USA.

First, it's a bit of a similar situation in Australia: you have three winter team ball sports (Aussie Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union) which compete for athletes and attention. In the US soccer competes with basketball (pro and college), football (pro and college) and to a lesser extent ice hockey.

Second (and overlapping with this) is there are no tribal loyalties to soccer teams in the US. There are tribal loyalties to the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Yankees. There are immense tribal loyalties to Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Florida State, and so on, in College Football (other nationalities are astonished at the popularity of "college sports" - to all intents and purposes, junior professional teams, similar to lower division play elsewhere in the world). I can name exactly one US professional soccer team, the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Then there's a subtle structural reason. US televised sports are used to market Ford F-150 pickups, Miller Lite and the US Marines. Commercials for these and similar products come on at 3-5 minute intervals, but soccer doesn't lend itself to frequent reminders to buy a truck, drink gassy cold mildly flavored straw colored soda and become a fighting man. Hence fewer ad dollars and less revenue for the game.

I bet marsupials think that being a mammal without a pouch is pretty bizarre.

Posted by felizjulianidad 06/30/2010 at 12:57 AM

Will offer you an explanation later today - they are my two favorite sports.

Posted by thebigapple 06/30/2010 at 01:19 AM

The marsupials have a point.

Many of the most successful mammals find it impossible to manage without a pouch. At least half the population of humans rather fancy them. I am sure that women would want a fleshy pocket on their tummy but as Gucci,Hermes, Coach, Chanel will advise you creatively crafted pouches are keenly desired.

Posted by thebigapple 06/30/2010 at 01:20 AM

"" women would NOT want...."

Posted by deuceThe3rd 06/30/2010 at 02:35 AM

Futbol (aka Soccer for us North Americans) is a good game. But it could use more scoring chances, they sould get rid of that bizarre offside rule or adopt a simpler offside rule like they have in ice hockey. Also what is with those penalty kicks? its a total guessing game. Let the player dribble forward and the goalie come off the line like in a hockey shootout.

I guess you can tell I am Canadian eh?

Posted by Robert 06/30/2010 at 02:42 AM

a somewhat similar article was published in NY Times 2 weeks ago, even same arguments like the scoring in nba etc., though generally the article is more relatable...

Posted by topspin 06/30/2010 at 03:00 AM

Unless most of the rules in tennis are understood, it is difficult to enjoy the game.
To a sports 'illiterate', soccer will be more interesting than tennis, because of the constant movement of the players.

Posted by freddy 06/30/2010 at 03:05 AM

Steve - I generally like your writing, but found this post very disappointing.

The fact is that most of us love the sports we grew up with...yes, it is possible we discover a sport later on in life and grow to love it, but I'd suspect that happens much more rarely. That's a much simpler explanation for why we tend to prefer a sport over another, than any other based on a post-facto application of 'what's in this sport that appeals to higher human emotions, and suchlike' (Occam's razor and all that..)

So Americans love their N(X)Ls / N(X)As...the Japs love their Sumo...the Indians love their cricket..and Malaysian's their Sepak Takraw in a way that people who didn't grow up on the sport wouldn't in general. However, football is a sport that seems to appeal to almost the entire world bar the US, irrespective of history / lineage. Here in India, we are rubbish at football (and prob. will always be), but that doesn't stop us from being passionate watchers.

Your tennis posts genuinely provide insight. This one doesn't and attempts to extend a purely subjective judgment (that you like tennis > football) into a specious argument that one sport intrinsically has some values higher than the other.

And it is football for ~ 180 to perhaps 4-5.

Posted by Tennis Guru Cyprus 06/30/2010 at 03:42 AM

Bravo Steve.....I Almost got tears in my eyes.....
Here in Cyprus people are watching football like crazy and i do not understand why....
I grew up with basketball but took up tennis 10 years ago (was 30) and i really love it....I've always loved your posts but special thanks for this one...

Posted by TJ Hughes 06/30/2010 at 03:48 AM

"I also wonder if the passion the rest of the world feels for it would be quite as deep if America started to dominate it."

Very good point, Mr Tignor. The English in particular, already perplexed and wounded by their inability to vanquish the likes of Germany and Argentina, would throw in the towel for good if the US became a soccer superpower.

Tennis is of course the greatest sport on earth. Boxing, basketball and ballet rolled into one.

Posted by Woody 06/30/2010 at 04:41 AM

A beautifully written and teasingly polemic piece Steve. I'm amused by some readers' reactions to your observations.

Actually, I share all your thoughts about soccer (football) and I'm English. I think part of my difficulty with soccer is that I don't support any particular team and am therefore obliged to watch it from a neutral perspective. However, for some reason this isn't a problem for me with tennis and I am able to be absorbed in the game itself irrespective of whether I have an alliegance to either player.

Posted by pj 06/30/2010 at 05:13 AM

Its time the americans started calling football by its proper name

Posted by Larry 06/30/2010 at 05:30 AM

Don't want to be an American idiot.
Don't want a nation under the new media
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind f**k America.

Don't want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It's calling out to idiot America.

...very disappointing article, Steve!

Posted by Pete 06/30/2010 at 07:28 AM

Hey Steve, Pete here. Nice job on this. Karl Marx was wrong. Soccer is the opiate of the masses. I wrote a book with Pele (great guy) a long time ago, but after immersion in the game (fun as it was), I realized that I had zero interest in it and have barely watched it since.

Wonder if it ever occurs to people that our native American disinterest in soccer is less because we're ethno-centric fools than because we have so many more options in sports - something definitely lacking, until relatively recently, in nations where soccer rules. But there is something - a lot - to be said for a game as accessible and inexpensive and infra-structure free as soccer. I just wish more people had more choices. And the fascination with soccer by many Americans is an affectation - an attempt to prove that they're not ignorant Americans. Has nothing to do with the quality of the game.

Anyway, back to Wimbledon for me. See you at the office next week!

Posted by ilovetennis 06/30/2010 at 08:13 AM

Too bad my country is full football-obsessed people. Football is like oxygen, water and medicine to them. Whenever I start talking about tennis they're all like:"Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Did you see what happened in the football match last night...?"

To me, tennis is my life. I can't imagine my life without it. And planning to stop playing and watching matches would insane, especially if the matches are that exciting(The Isner vs Mahut match or the Gulbis vs Federer match)

Posted by Nina 06/30/2010 at 08:15 AM

Steve I am a fan of yours, but you clearly don't understand football (as it is internationally known) at all. If you had been born in Europe or South America you would have seen football all your life, because it's virtually impossible to ignore the sport. I'm a girl and when I was little I hated it that my father would tune up every football match on TV at the time when the family household only had one TV. It made me realy angry and I hated football with a vengueance. However, club identification in your city is so important that you hardly ever question it. No matter if you like football or not, if you're asked what team you belong to you will respond: FB Barcelona or Real Madrid or whatever. It's in your blood, passed from generation to generation. You can't escape it. It's like your national identity. In catalonia, Spain, when you're born most fathers will make you an instant member of their football club. I never cared about football when I was a little girl but I knew I belonged to FC Barcelona (or Barça as we call it). In Spain football teams also carry a long history of politics, freedom of speech, belonging, nationality, etc. FC Barcelona is ingrained in our local culture and politics. Under the dictatorship of Franco, our own native language Catalan, otherwise forbidden in public places. FC Barcelona was synonimous of national indentity and it represented our culture. Of course today things are very different, but still you don't ever turn your back on your club.
I think the lack of any important and prestigious clubs in USA is one of the reasons football is not as popular there. It doesn't help either that USA has never dominated the sport, even though it has been participating in every World Cup for many years.
Our football clubs are over 100 years old and have the tradition and hystorical importance of, say, Wimbledon.

Posted by weak40player 06/30/2010 at 09:59 AM

As an American (ok, North American citizen of the US, if you must) who lived in England for several years I did begin to enjoy soccer and formed a nascent appreciation of the sport, but at the end of the day it still looks like a bunch of guys running around after a ball. So, I guess, I really don't get it. My English wife will tell you that Rugby Football (what, there's another football) is the true sport.

Obviously, no sport is "better" than any other; except that tennis really is the best. (And somebody please explain why ice hockey even exists.) OK, I'm kidding. Tennis is my favorite sport, so it's best in my universe. (But really, ice hockey?)

And BTW, I'll call it soccer if I flipping well want to. Though marsupial is pretty funny--gotta like that.

Posted by ct 06/30/2010 at 11:07 AM

"it would help if you could use your hands"??? LOL!! well - play Handball then! An there's a good reason it's called FOOTball; not soccer -lest an American might think of using hands instead to play! LOL!
BTW, I enjoy both Football AND Tennis - they're different; I like beer some days, and wine on others :o)

Posted by linex 06/30/2010 at 11:33 AM

I love tennis but celebrating a goal in the stadium for your favourite team in an important match is one of the happy moments that life has gifted me. I always say to the people in front of me do not stand up before the goal is scored, even if a play by a forward that is about to stay face to face with the goal keeper is made you just need to wait to see if it is finally a goal, that unexpected moment when a goal is scored is just a magic one. I guess in no other sport, people experience the bond and feeling of belonging as in soccer.

I was lucky enough to celebrate so many lovely/important goals in my life as the team (and national team) for which I root has won numerous titles in home soil. My club Club Nacional de Football de Montevideo (Uruguay) has won three Americas Cups (equivalent of Champions League) at home soil and I was able to be present in two of them. Uruguay as national team has a record 16 America Cups won (tied with Argentina for the most America Cups won) and I was there to cheer for two of them in 1983 and 1995. In 1981 as a nine year old child I was able to celebrate Uruguay's win a mini world cup played at the Centenario Stadium in Montevideo by all the teams that had one at least one World Cup.

PS: Funny Steve that without being a soccer fan you learned got a good grasp of Maradona and of the talent required to be an effective striker.

Posted by Oliver Chettle 06/30/2010 at 11:56 AM

America isn't likely ever to start to dominate football, because Americans aren't actually very good at team games. Your emphasis on winning in the lower age groups actually inhibits the development of skilful players who can win at the world level. There was an interesting article about this in the New York Times recently. You don't even do very well in international competition in baseball and basketball relative to the human and financial resources you put into those sports compared to everyone else.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 06/30/2010 at 11:57 AM

Precisely, Steve!

And here;s something I just don't get about soccer (and hockey, for that matter)... when someone (an individual) finally scores a goal, he runs across the field like some crazed pilot looking for a place to land his crippled jet, then drops into a knee slie wit his arms extended like Jesus, but his mouth agape and eyes wide with excitement, not serenity, and then all his teammates mug him and maybe even carry him off the field. If it's such a "team" sport, with "team spirit" being the mantra, whatever happens to the poor forgotten co-pilot who helped set up the play?

Posted by Tommy 06/30/2010 at 12:01 PM

Steve, Im argentinian, and a futbol fan, as we call it here, no "soccer" like Americans refer to the sport. I can tell you that it´s never the same watching US national players against Algerie or Ghana, than watch watching the mere skill and virtuoso performances that displays such players as Robinho, Luis Fabiano, Arjen Robben, Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez. With all due respect, Donovan, Dempsey, even Mike Bradley, which I consider to have some certain skill, are not elite footballers or world class such as argentinians or brazilians.
My point being, when you say that even in a good play consisting of dribbling and passing turning out to be futile by the end, that is part of the essence of the sport, the virtues living together with errors. In tennis ocurrs the same with an exchange of maybe twenty, thirty shots in a spectacular rally that ends with a netted forehand. So what? It was worth the previous entertaining, don´t you think?
In North America I believe there is a cult to immediate result, just to keep the fan glued to their TVs and keep up the excitement. But let me tell you one thing, watching Messi make one of his trademark sprints dribbling between three or four defenders as if being five year old kids is as much eye-candy like a forehand down the line winner. Not to mention good passing mixed with fast dribble as it often happens between the star studded forward line in Argentina national team. I love tennis, but I also love very much futbol..haha, can´t wait for saturdays match up against Germany!!! Come on Argentina!

Posted by pov 06/30/2010 at 12:06 PM


Another (fairly rare) WTFWYT moment from Tignor. No sport is better than any other; many people like soccer, many people like tennis and many people - like myself - like both.

Posted by Maradona 06/30/2010 at 12:13 PM

Steve, you will be ignorant about the world's greatest sport until you stop calling it Soccer.

Posted by cmast 06/30/2010 at 12:22 PM

Thoroughly annoyed with this article. The author clearly knows nothing about soccer and is ignorant and biased beyond belief. I love tennis and soccer and appreciate them both in different ways. The author makes himself sound like an idiot when he tries to make comparisons. Hard to read and not want to hit someone.

Posted by Gabrich 06/30/2010 at 12:59 PM

They're both dominated by Spaniards anyway.

Posted by Megan 06/30/2010 at 02:01 PM

Interesting article, however I guess I may be the the exception to the rule that 1) I'm American and 2) love soccer and tennis almost equally - by far my favorite sports. I love them both and love how different they are. I love the passion the rest of the world has for futbol and hope that it catches on here... I grew up playing both so maybe that's why. In fact, I'm seen as a bit of a odd one in my male dominated banking office who claim I like "elitist, odd" sports more than the traditional football, baseball and basketball. Whatever - we like what we like - and they are just sports at the end of the day.

Posted by Jake 06/30/2010 at 02:02 PM

Wow Steve, you are being very disrespectul with all the worlwide FOOTBALL fans by saying that tennis is the "superior" sport. What kind of crap is that? In my personal case, I don´t know much about baseball, I don´t know the rules and in what it consists, but that doesn´t give me credit to consider it an inferior sport to football. I think your lack of football culture and ignorance in what it consists is woefull.
I´m a huge fan of your tennis articles, but I´m sorry but I must say it, don´t write or judge about what you are no expert. This piece of yours is what many americans think in their narrow-mindnessness and isolation. It´s time to open your eyes and start to appreciate other sports rather than the ones the americans practice. Rugby is fascinating and thoroughly interesting, for instance. And next year will be the World Cup of rugby. Don´t you ever wonder why there isn´t a World Cup of American Football, or Baseball? And don´t mention the world series or the NBA "world champions". The Lakers are only the US champions and that´s it.

Posted by oscar 06/30/2010 at 02:45 PM


Posted by Miguel 06/30/2010 at 03:08 PM

I have seen Federer avoiding the use of his backhand slice, seems to me that he doesn't like to use it just to win a point, he just tries to play a beautiful game.

In football, when you see a team using all the resources at hand, volleys, long passes, shots to goal, then you really enjoy a beautiful game, in every World Cup you see teams and players worthwhile watching: Messi, Uruguay, Ghana, Dutchland (Pays-bas), Japan, South Africa, for Mexico I say the player called Chicharito.

Football is the better sport to develop strength on your legs, no wonder Rafa and Roger practiced for so long.

Both sports sometimes are bored to watch, because the priority of winning a match at any cost.

Posted by paints 06/30/2010 at 03:23 PM

do away with the offside's rule. let's have some frickin breakaway's, open up the game.

funny story. several years back i was playing at the sidwell friends tennis club and the school's baseball field was a short distance away. while my match was finishing up i noticed an attractive girl standing watching the baseball. after my match i eased on over to get a better look and as i stood there maybe 10 feet away she suddenly turned to me and said, in a foreign accent, "can i ask you a question?". sure, said i. her question? "why don't they run?".

she'd been watching the baseball game a good 30 minutes and couldn't figure out what the heck was going on. all she knew was there were people standing around in the field doing pretty much nothing while the other team sat on the bench. every once in a while they'd change so the other team could sit, in the meantime it looked like two players were playing catch.

at least in soccer they run.

Posted by football17 06/30/2010 at 03:34 PM

terrible article. typical american

Posted by Chico Ezquela 06/30/2010 at 03:39 PM


FUUUUT-A-BOL................. I DON KNOW.

ROGER FEDERER?...................................... BERRY BEERRRRY GUUUUD.

SERENA WILLIAMS?..............................................BERRY BERRRY GUUUUD.

ANDY RODDICK?....................................................... I DON KNOW.

Posted by cami 06/30/2010 at 03:47 PM

There are a lot of Europeans that don't get football, either. They're a minority, but being non-US doesn't automatically make one a football expert. In every like or dislike there's room for personal taste.

But to like something, anything, first you need to be exposed to that something from early on. So, together with personal taste, there is also the culture and family you're born into. Americans are not exposed to football/soccer like we are in Europe, so they cannot grow to appreciate it. Same as I, as an European, was not exposed to baseball, American football or golf. Therefore, I find them boring, mainly because I don't know the rules. Could I learn the rules and understand them? Yes, of course. But I cannot be bothered. Why? Because, even if I became a fan of American football, let's say, there would be NOBODY among my friends to talk to about it!

Every sport comes together with a culture, a sense of community and, most importantly, with memories. I watch very little football nowadays (I'm a girl, I have better things to do :), but I can still remember to this day the moment when, back in the dark ages of communism, Steaua Bucharest won the Champions' League in 1986. I was very young and didn't understand a thing about football (or politics), but I could feel the buzz, the never-felt-before emotions of the grown-ups watching the game in our living-room, and their happiness. Happy grown-ups were quite rare in those times, so I noticed it.

That's why I will always have warm feelings about football. Because it is part of my childhood, of my memories, my history. I have friends who are able to recite by heart Steaua's 1986 team now, almost 25 years later. And some of them were not even born in 86.

Posted by Jake 06/30/2010 at 04:27 PM

The ability to find entertainment in every sport is different for every fan. A basketball diehard fan surely found fantastic and almost watch the Lakers "Showtime" of Bird, Magic and Abdul Jabbar run the fastbreak clinic. But if you take that same fan and made him watch a match of Diego Maradona while he was in his prime in the middle eighties he would enjoy it as well. Especially the match against England in the 1986 world cup, when he made a fool of 5, 6 players, including the english goalie, in a sprint starting in the midfield. That is pure an exquisit talent, in both cases. Period. There is no better or worse sport. They are equally enjoyable in each way.
What I´m trying to say is, talent and mere skill is appreciated in every top athlete, from Maradona back in the day, to Magic Johnson, to Usain Bolt, to Roger Federer and Kobe Bryant nowadays. We, as fans, should celebrate that these men shared their unique talents with us.

Posted by Maria 06/30/2010 at 05:12 PM

Tsonga or Murray.What are you think who is the best???

Posted by Abraxas 06/30/2010 at 06:59 PM


I can give you a simple analogy that should help you understand why football is, by far, the most followed sport in the world.

Football is like love: it has nothing to do with the end result, as you and many Americans seem to think, and everything to do with the path taken, the flow of the game itself.

Yes, a goal is like a climax and it is nice to have, but it is not necessary for love or football to be enjoyable (it is not sex but love). It is not about what happened in the end (who won and lost, and by what score) but how it happened. That is where the beauty, the art, and the enjoyment of football are found.

Think Federer vs. Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final and try explaining to someone who hasn’t watched the game why it is considered the best tennis match of all time. It has nothing to do with the end result, nor with points scored, games or sets. It has everything to do with how the game was played, the emotion, the effort, the battle, the strokes, the movements, the flow, the path taken. In short, it was the best match because of how it happened.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 06/30/2010 at 10:12 PM

"That's why I will always have warm feelings about football. Because it is part of my childhood, of my memories, my history."

Thank you Cami ! You just said it all for me in those two lines.

Posted by roGER 07/01/2010 at 04:06 AM

It's one of the most extraordinary paradoxes of our age.

At a time when American culture has affected every corner of the planet (from tee-shirts to jeans to popular music and film), American sport, with the semi-exception of basketball, has failed to make any impact at all.

As both a tennis and a football fan, I can appreciate both. Perhaps the only problem I have with Steve's excellent piece is the assumption that "on the surface, the least happens." That's only true if you equate a goal with something happening.

In football, a great save by the goalkeeper, a great accurate pass, a great tackle, a great free-kick - all that is happening. And it's almost the same in tennis. We tend to remember and appreciate the great rallies regardless of the fact they score the same as a serve-winner.

Posted by Tinh 07/01/2010 at 04:49 AM

"Football is like love: it has nothing to do with the end result, as you and many Americans seem to think, and everything to do with the path taken, the flow of the game itself.

Yes, a goal is like a climax and it is nice to have, but it is not necessary for love or football to be enjoyable (it is not sex but love). It is not about what happened in the end (who won and lost, and by what score) but how it happened. That is where the beauty, the art, and the enjoyment of football are found."

Beautifully put, Abraxas

Posted by willy 07/01/2010 at 08:18 AM

Bill Shankly put it clear: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that".

Posted by easton 07/01/2010 at 02:57 PM

Nobody like severy sport, and there's no need to give any plausible-sounding reason why a sport is "futile" or "boring."

I watch baseball and the foul balls,fly balls, whiffs and balls are not fun. neither is a drive in the nfl that stalls after 40 yds, and that happens a LOT.

Every sport has its weaknesses and its attractions - enjoy the ones you like and don't make up half-assed criticisms of the others. we tend to glorify the sports we like and ridicule the ones we dislike.

10 year old boys in Jamaica, Spain and Brazil can control a ball with feet or chest - its not hard when you know how to do it.

As to tennis being the better sport - is there any objective value in that statement??

Every sp

Posted by thatchamo 07/03/2010 at 01:22 AM

When I watch soccer it seems as if nothing much is happening. Obviously that's not true, but broadcasters either assume vast knowledge on the part of their audience, which excludes vast numbers of Americans, or simply can't keep up verbally with the inordinate complexity of what must be developing. To the players, things may be happening on the level of "Uruguay's player X just moved six inches to the right, which in approximately eight seconds may or may not result in Antarctica's player Y deciding if it's a fake or the beginning of a ferocious onslaught which has little chance of succeeding because Uruguay's player Z will quite probably dash toward the sidelines in a brilliant anticipation of bla bla bla..." Americans probably can't deal with what may be the case: soccer (football) is mostly random activity but over time a better team will more often take advantage of a situation and score. If it is that random I'd rather watch snowflakes and try to anticipate which one will land on my nose.

Posted by barry 07/03/2010 at 02:16 AM

well written as always, Steve, but you're missing the punchline!
To think the ball is ever in one's hand displays a desire for something that is physic-ally impossible - to have control over one's lot in life.

You can maximize the probabilities of your desired outcome, but you can never own your destiny as if the rest of the universe operates in a vacuum.

Soccer is more emblematic of life in that way. There is a lot of luck involved with one's lot in life. It may initially feel depressing, but as with most things, those feelings are tempered with time and eventually you might even embrace the uncertainty inherent in nature.

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Posted by DavidSpain 07/05/2010 at 07:35 PM

"I also wonder if the passion the rest of the world feels for it would be quite as deep if America started to dominate it"

Really dissapointing article Steve. Unworthy of you, man. Just another demonstration of american arrogance. 6 billion people all over the world can not be wrong, you are!!! Keep playing baseball in your sports isolation and let the rest of the world enjoy the world's sport!!
Vamos Rafa!!! Grande!!!
That's what we need in the semis against Germany, 11 Nadals!!!
Suck it Steve!!

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