Soccer is ready to capture our attention
Am I really posting a 4,500-word soccer column on the same day all hell is breaking loose for the biggest NBA summer ever? You're damn right I am! I'm tired of wondering where LeBron, Wade, Nowitzki and everyone else will land. I'm even more tired of people reporting about things that might happen, could happen or seem likely to happen. Just tell me when they happen. Thanks. In the meantime, let's play 20 Questions with the 2010 World Cup.
Question No. 1: What's been the single best thing about the Cup so far?
I love the Cup because it stripped away all the things about professional sports that I've come to despise. No sideline reporters. No JumboTron. No TV timeouts. No onslaught of replays after every half-decent play. No gimmicky team names like the "Heat" or the "Thunder." (You know what the announcers call Germany? The Germans. I love this.) No announcers breathlessly overhyping everything or saying crazy things to get noticed. We don't have to watch 82 mostly half-assed games to get to the playoffs. We don't have 10 graphics on the screen at all times. We don't have to sit there for four hours waiting for a winner because pitchers are taking 25 seconds to deliver a baseball.
The World Cup just bangs it out: Two cool national anthems, two 45-minute halves, a few minutes of extra time and usually we're done. Everything flies by. Everything means something. It's the single best sporting event we have by these four measures: efficiency, significance, historical context and truly meaningful/memorable/exciting moments. You know as long as you like soccer.
Question No. 2: What's the second-best thing?
For me, it's been the schedule. See, my son (aka The CEO) wakes up every morning at 5:30 by opening his bedroom door, stomping out, slamming the door as hard as he can, stomping into our bedroom, then slamming our door as hard as he can. He's like a human vuvuzela crossed with a tornado crossed with a car alarm. Once you've been awoken by the sound of two doors being slammed as hard as possible, there's no going back to sleep. You're up for the day.
Never during the CEO's reign of early-morning terror have I watched anything decent other than morning "SportsCenters" as I waited for 20 ounces of coffee to kick in. This month? I had the second half of every 4:30 a.m. PT game in Round 1, followed by the 7 a.m. game a little bit later. No offense, Hannah Storm and Josh Elliott, but it was nice to spend a few mornings watching a real sporting event instead of highlights of things that had happened eight hours before. For that reason alone, the 2010 World Cup will always be near and dear to my heart.
Question No. 3: Why do we wait every four years to have the World Cup?
When I argued recently that the Cup should be every three years, readers flooded me with reasons it couldn't work: It's too expensive (apparently the Cup always loses money for whichever country gets it); they'd have to do too much reconfiguring for smaller tournaments already in place (note: I don't get that argument; that's like saying you can't have the Oscars interfering with the SAG Awards or something); people like having it every four years because it's more meaningful that way (by that logic, you should have sex every four years, too); and most importantly, FIFA never wants to go head-to-head with the Summer Olympics.
My counter for the last argument: Why not? So we'd have MORE sports on? Wow, that sounds terrible! I'd hate to have all those exciting things to watch. And by the way, the Olympics should switch to every three years as well. I never understood the "No, it has to be every four years, that's the way they've always done it" argument. That's like saying "I'm not getting an HD plasma; I'm sticking with my old-school TV, that's the way I've always watched it." It's stupid. It's a loser's mentality.
The best every-three-years case for both the Cup and the Olympics: When it's every four years, you might miss an athlete's apex completely. Look at Larry Bird: The Basketball Jesus peaked from November 1984 through April 1988 before his body started to break down. Had he played in the '84 Summer Olympics, he wouldn't have reached his apex yet. Had he played in the '88 Olympics, we would have caught him right after his prime. We want the best of the best at their absolute best -- by going four years (and not three), you're taking a chance that a transcendent athlete might have the misfortune of peaking at the wrong time.
(And again what's wrong with MORE sports? Like you'd be furious if there was another USA-Canada gold-medal hockey game in 30 months? Come on. After Obama appoints me the czar of sports, my first move will be giving Seattle an expansion NBA team. My second move will be making the Olympics and World Cup switch to every three years. And my third move will be allowing any woman with gigantic Morganna-like breasts to run onto baseball fields and kiss ballplayers without getting arrested. We get those three things going and everything else will be cream cheese.)
Question No. 4: How many times did you regret not ditching your family, ditching the NBA Finals, ditching the Celtics and flying 20 hours to South Africa for the World Cup?
Four times and four times only: During the USA-Algeria game (for obvious reasons); during the Germany-England game (just would have been cool to be there); when my buddy Rob Stone (covering the Cup for ESPN) sent me a picture of him and a lion (look to the right); and during Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the Staples Center (as purple and yellow confetti was falling on me and I was glancing around to make sure I wasn't dead and in hell). Other than that, no regrets. I have a 65-inch plasma with stereo surround sound. My living room was made for the World Cup. Widescreen, 1080p, HD, green grass, the hum of the vuvuzelas it's just like being there, only with Internet and DVR rewind.
Question No. 5: Speaking of the vuvuzelas, did you really tell a friend that you have developed Stockholm Syndrome with them?
That's true. I don't mind them any longer. I like the World Cup, so the vuvuzela sound has become Pavlov's dinner bell for me. I hear them and think, "Cool, the World Cup's on!" By the way, you know something is historically annoying when you can compare it to a hostage sympathizing with his or her captors and the comparison actually works.
Question No. 6: Was it good or bad for the World Cup that Italy and France got bounced in the group stage?
I'm going with "bad." I love when two old-school powerhouses battle with an underlying subplot of, "Yeah, it's just soccer right now, but back in the old days, these two countries actually tried to destroy each other." Keeping USA, Spain, Germany, England, Italy and France around as long as possible makes me think about the Boston Tea Party, the War of 1812, Neville Chamberlain, Napoleon getting overthrown, multiple wars, Thomas Jefferson throwing his genitals around France like a boomerang, Benedict Arnold switching sides, all the times France surrendered or withdrew, and basically everything good and bad that's ever happened between those six countries. It's like having four solid weeks of AP History flashbacks.
Look, I loved watching France's tournament unravel, and it's always funny when countries live up to their worst possible stereotype. But losing Italy AND France? Too big a double whammy. Maybe it's not as bad as losing Federer and Roddick before the semifinals at Wimbledon, but it's not ideal.
(Let's wait a second for every NBC Sports executive to stop nodding grimly.)
(And we're good.)
Question No. 7: You haven't handled Boston's Game 7 loss to the Lakers very well. What was the snarkiest e-mail or text you sent to a Boston friend after hearing that Kobe was attending the USA-Ghana game?
It was a tie between "Since Kobe is attending this game, does this mean we're gonna get all the calls?" and "Kobe watched only six of the first 24 minutes but was still named MVP of his luxury suite."
Question No. 8: After a few legitimately horrendous World Cup officiating moments, as well as FIFA's bizarre refusal to incorporate instant replay haunting the Cup multiple times, do you feel better or worse about officiating and leadership in American professional sports?
I have slowly come to grips with the fact that officiating will probably be excruciating in whatever sport I happen to be watching. If it's better than "excruciating," it's a bonus. If it's better than "mediocre," you practically won the lottery. So the shaky officiating didn't change anything for me. FIFA's stance is that "we can't have instant replay in soccer, it's important that every FIFA-sanctioned game plays by the same rules, and we can't afford to have instant replay for every FIFA game, so instead, we won't have it at all, even though these World Cup games are 100 times more important than any other FIFA event." Even Bud Selig and Gary Bettman would have realized this was stupendously dumb. And that's saying something. At the very least, why not just station two goal judges behind each net like in the NHL? Would you have to pay those guys more than 20 bucks an hour?
Question No. 9: But you'd still love the NBA to incorporate the yellow/red card system for flagrant fouls and technical fouls, correct?
Sure. Much better than an official leaning over a scorer's table and telling them what the technical or flagrant was, then trying to guess what he said. Bring out yellow/red cards and we'd know right away. I also like the concept of an official not having to explain why he called what he called -- like the ref who robbed the U.S. of the winning goal in the Slovenia game and never explained why. It's really the only way NBA officials could be shakier and more suspect than they already are. I say go for it -- let's go for as shaky and suspect as possible. Let's push the envelope.
Question No. 10: Who does Lionel Messi look like? It's driving me crazy.
Dustin Hoffman in "All The President's Men."
Question No. 11: What was the funniest thing you've read about the World Cup this month?
I liked Michael Davies' take on England's demise: "Americans will never completely understand how crap it is, most of the time, to be English. We might have cute accents and be good at cocktail parties. But we are mostly losers." That slayed me. England's fatalistic, self-loathing, S&M-style attitude toward its national team tops Buffalo Bills fans, Minnesota Vikings fans or even Cleveland fans.
Question No. 12: Come on, it can't TOP Cleveland fans -- at least say it's dead even, right?
Question No. 13: If you could change anything about soccer, what would it be?
I hate how teams milk leads in the last 15-20 minutes by faking injuries and taking forever to sub players. When that Ghana player had to be carried off on a stretcher at the tail end of the America game, then hopped off like nothing ever happened as soon as the stretcher was out of bounds, I thought that was appalling. Actually, it made me want to go to war with Ghana. I wanted to invade them. I'm not even kidding. That's another great thing about the World Cup: Name another sport in which you genuinely want to invade other countries when you lose.
Question No. 14: What's been the strangest thing about the 2010 World Cup?
To hear Germany described in such likable, underdoggy tones. Who would have thought these young upstarts would jell this fast? It's like the announcers were talking about the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays or something if the Tampa Bay Rays had started two world wars and nearly brought down Europe.
Question No. 15: Your friend Chuck Klosterman thinks ESPN brainwashed you to like soccer as part of the Worldwide Leader's plot to turn soccer into a commercial sport. He calls you the Manchurian Soccer Candidate. Can you prove this isn't true?
Honestly? I can't. It's a theory with no holes. How did "The Manchurian Candidate" end? The guy died, right? (Googling it hold on.) Crap. The guy died. I'm screwed.
Question No. 16: Who will win the 2010 Cup?
I picked Argentina, so I'm sticking with them. Second choice: Brazil. Third choice: Germany. I never understood why people were discounting Argentina solely because of Diego Maradona. How much damage can a soccer coach really do with a stacked team that's always better than anyone it's playing? When Bob Bradley screwed up the Ghana game because of his inexplicable "Screw it, I'm not starting my best 11 guys" strategy, that's a different story: We couldn't beat Ghana unless we played well and avoided any major boners. How can you screw up a team with superstuds like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez on it?
Question No. 17: Hold on, you can't let Maradona go that fast. Where does he rank for Unintentional Comedy on a scale of 1 to Ron Artest?
Well, Artest thanked his psychiatrist after Game 7 of the NBA Finals, then wore his uniform out to clubs to celebrate. Even the fact that Maradona was once hospitalized for "too much drinking, smoking and overeating" can't top that. Still, when you're a bizarre hybrid of Ozzie Guillen, Mark Madsen and Shooter from "Hoosiers" multiplied by four, if Colin Farrell gained 85 pounds to play you in a sports movie and wore discount Italian suits how can you not love Maradona to pieces? It's also worth noting that he brings a ton of energy to Argentina's sideline; they probably already broke the record for full-body man hugs during a sports tournament. That's not a positive? Count me among Maradona's many fans. Of course, if police find him in a hotel room with four hookers and a pound of blow the night before the Cup final, forget I mentioned this.
Question No. 18: After USA's exit in the round of 16, should American soccer fans be disappointed? Proud? Ambivalent? Frustrated but appreciative?
I'd go with the latter. Heading into the Ghana game, the stars had aligned in three ways: Landon Donovan's Algeria goal had totally passed the Mom Test back in the States (in other words, even my mother, who barely follows sports, knew about it and had an opinion on it); USA had a shockingly easy road to the semifinals (for whatever reason, the other half of the bracket was stacked); and Donovan and Tim Howard were playing as well as anyone in the world. An improbable semifinals trip and Lord knows how much domestic momentum was sitting there on a platter. So really, they blew it. And they blew it for frustrating reasons (Bradley's bizarre lineup choices) and legitimate ones (no American forward could have started for a Premier League contender, much less any Cup favorite). We scored five goals in four games: two on hustle goals off second chances, one on a penalty kick, one on a brain fart by England's goalie, and Donovan's goal against Slovenia, which came with the help of a mistimed defensive play. Not a single "WOW!!!!!!!!!" play among them.
And what's what worries me about the ceiling of American soccer. We reached a certain plateau in 2010, a little like a 47-win NBA team that everyone knows can't make the Finals. Watch how those crafty Germans bang home scoring chances, or the blinding speed of their young stud Mesut Ozil on the wing. Rewatch that "WOW!!!!!!!!!" goal scored by Uruguay's striker to beat Korea Republic, or the one by Tevez in the Argentina-Mexico game. Team USA never made you scream "WOW!!!!!!!!!" for a really good reason: We don't have a player with that kind of chops. This was a team of grinders and overachievers. We didn't have enough speed without Charlie Davies, and we certainly don't have a world-class striker who creates scoring chances out of thin air. In four Cup games, our forwards scored zero goals. That's why we went home over everything else.
By 2014, maybe young Jozy Altidore (only 20) will get there; he certainly has the physical gifts, although it's unclear whether he has any scoring touch. (It's the difference between Dwight Howard's low-post game and Pau Gasol's low-post game; you can work at it all you want, but you'll never be as good as the guys who are born to put it into the net. A guy like Germany's Miroslav Klose could find the far post falling out of a wheelchair when he's 60. It's a DNA thing. I am convinced. So the worry is that Jozy has too much Howard in him and not enough Gasol.) Maybe Davies and Fast Young Guy X will provide that missing burst on the wing. Maybe Teenage Prodigy X is four years from saving us and we don't even know his name. But you can't advance to the semifinals without the "WOW!!!!!!!!!" factor. Impossible.
(Important note: I want Simon Cowell to create a reality television competition for Fox called "American Striker." That's the only way we'll find one by 2014, barring Jozy jumping a level or a foreign stud miraculously defecting. And don't rule that out. Can't we find a multibillionaire sports fan to "convince" an up-and-coming striker to become an American citizen before he commits to another national team? Larry Ellison and Paul Allen: Step it up, fellas.)
Question No. 19: Thanks to last year's Confederations Cup and Donovan's extra-time goal last weekend, do you think soccer is finally taking off in America?
Put it this way
When I was in the third grade (1978), people thought soccer was taking off in America.
When I was a freshman in college (1988), people thought soccer was taking off in America.
When I was a barely employed wannabe sportswriter in Boston whose life revolved around the O.J. Simpson trial and partying every night (1994), people thought soccer was taking off in America.
When I was living in Boston with my fiancée and writing for ESPN.com (2002), people thought soccer was taking off in America.
I am 40 years old. I live in Los Angeles. My hair is turning silvery white. I have a wife, two kids, a mortgage and that same ESPN column. Guess what? People think soccer is taking off in America. Only this time I agree with them.
Question No. 20: Wait a second you agree with them? YOU AGREE WITH THEM???? You sap! They say this every four years and it never happens!!!! Klosterman is right! You are the Manchurian Soccer Candidate!
Hear me out
When Donovan scored that Cup-saving goal against those spineless playing-for-a-tie-when-they-needed-to-win-by-two-goals Algerians, the moment resonated like no other goal in American soccer history. We didn't have anyone telling us how we should feel, what the implications were, what the moment meant. We knew what it meant. We wanted more games. We wanted our boys to keep playing. Someone scored. We celebrated. We jumped up and down. We ran around the room. We were alive for another game. For once in a fragmented sports world, we all happened to be rooting for the same thing.
When does that happen anymore? In 2010, you can follow any athlete, whether he plays 13 miles away or 3,000. You can watch any game you want. You can read any and every opinion that exists. You can find out information as soon as it happens, instead of 12-18 hours later in a newspaper. You can interact with other fans who love your team; you can butt heads with the people who hate them. You can tweet your thoughts on a big play as the players are still celebrating it. You can root for your real guys and your fantasy guys. You are fanatically autonomous.
We didn't have nearly as many choices when I was growing up. Either you rooted for local teams or you jumped on a successful bandwagon (such as the Steelers' or Cowboys') because they were always on national TV. The days of "I'm going to fall in love with Oklahoma City because I love watching Kevin Durant, even though I live in Maine" were still decades away. Eight-Year-Old Me rooted for the four Boston teams, Ali, Nicklaus, Connors and Leonard. I hated the Yankees, Raiders, Dolphins, Canadiens, Flyers, Sixers, Munson, Nettles, Stabler, Clarke and Kareem. I liked Earl Campbell and the Oilers' uniforms. I liked David Thompson and George Gervin. I loved all Topps cards. I loved Gerry Cheevers' mask. I loved Terry O'Reilly and Mike Haynes. I loved Freddie Lynn more than anything. And those were the only real sports opinions I had.
Fast-forward to 2010. What shapes Eight-Year-Old Me? How would EYOM settle on 10-12 things to love and hate? How would EYOM differentiate substance from nonsense? How could a moment stand out for EYOM when everything gets televised or covered? It's total sports overload. Too many choices, too much noise, too many extremes, too many niches, too many forums, too many opinions, too many people trying to stand out. You become numb after a while. The only thing that never gets old? Winning in the most dramatic way possible, then basking in the glow of that dramatic victory with as many people as possible.
Recently, Tiger Woods came closest to uniting everyone for a common rooting interest -- remember the 2008 U.S. Open? -- but his career imploded and he squandered that momentum indefinitely (if not forever). There is no "Wildly Popular American Athlete" or "Wildly Popular American Team." We even turned on Brett Favre. We only share the Olympics together, every two years. A rotating cast of athletes that fleetingly capture our affection, and after that, we never consider them again.
The U.S. soccer team could own that "everyone" domain for the simple reason that it's unattainable for anyone else. We always want our national soccer team to succeed; it would be un-American to feel differently. There's continuity through the years when certain players (such as Donovan, Howard and 2010 breakout star Michael Bradley, locks to make the 2014 World Cup) stick around for a prolonged time. There's always a finish line (the Cup every four years), with dozens of exhibitions, smaller tournaments and World Cup qualifying strewn in between. If you want, you can extend your attachment by following American stars on their club squads. Add everything up and it feels like following the Lakers, Red Sox, Niners or whomever.
(Note: I knew I was hooked on Saturday, after Bob Bradley started Ricardo Clark over Maurice Edu, when I was sending e-mails back and forth with friends much like I would have done had Doc Rivers started Tony Allen in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. What the hell is going on? Why are we doing this? Is Edu injured or something? This is terrible! WHY??????? You may have been sending those same e-mails to your buddies, too. That's the "everyone" domain.)
A cynic might say, "Come on, you could have said the same thing when we beat Colombia in 1994." No way. You need time with these things. Decades. You need kids like me to grow up with soccer in their lives. You need a few memories to stack up. You need it to happen organically. The theory that soccer would never catch on until we found our own Pelé or launched our own successful pro league was dead wrong. We only needed to be exposed to great soccer for a prolonged period of time. We're American. We only respond to the best. The cream of the crop. Nothing else is going to fly.
We don't care that much about Donovan playing for the L.A. Galaxy with guys who couldn't sniff the Premier League, just like English people wouldn't care about seeing Dwyane Wade playing with a bunch of D-Leaguers in London. We want to see Donovan tested against the best. In the months leading up to the 2010 World Cup, I watched Donovan play big games for our national team, for the Galaxy (in the playoffs), then overseas for a solid Everton team. I knew he was a world-class player. I knew he was legitimate. I wasn't stealing that opinion from a magazine or a talking head. The hours I logged with Donovan made me feel invested in him.
It's just easier to care about soccer now. Actually, it's something of a perfect storm -- the technology in place, the flaws of our own professional sports, the efficiency of soccer games, our longing for the pre-JumboTron days when people just cheered and that's what fans did, our best-of-the-best fetish, ESPN's unwavering commitment to pushing the sport, the urgency of every game -- that makes more sense as a whole than it did 10 years ago. After that crushing Ghana defeat, the U.S. players weren't devastated just because they blew a winnable game, but because they knew a growing number of Americans actually cared and it wasn't simply a bandwagon thing. (The TV ratings backed it up: an astonishing 19.4 million U.S. viewers.) It was like pining for the same girl for four years in college, finally hooking up with her one night, then getting kicked out of school the next day.
Dammit! I blew it! I had her! We could have had something!
Regardless, the U.S. completed Stage 1. Soccer is no longer taking off. It's here. Those celebratory YouTube videos that started popping up in the 24 hours after Donovan's goal -- all unfolding the same way, with a stationary shot of nervous fans watching the game in a bar, going quiet for a couple of seconds during the American counterattack, reacting to Dempsey's miss ("Nooooooooo!"), holding their breath for two beats ("Wait a second "), exploding on Donovan's finish ("Hi-yahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"), then chanting "USA! USA! USA!" afterward -- tapped into a collective American sports experience unlike anything since Lake Placid.
I would never compare Donovan's goal to Mike Eruzione's goal, or compare the significance of an early-round World Cup game to the best American sports night ever. But you can't tell me Donovan's goal was a fleeting moment or a lark. Each celebration clip that landed on YouTube could have been any American bar, any group of American friends, anywhere. Like John Cougar Mellencamp's annoying Chevy commercial sprung to life. Only it wasn't annoying. I thought it was glorious. Those clips choked me up. Those clips gave me goosebumps. Those clips made me think, "I forget this sometimes, but I'm glad I live in the United States of America."
Rasheed Wallace loved to say "ball don't lie." YouTube don't lie, either. We will always have the Algeria game. Always.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.