The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Soccer, America, and the Emblematic Woman

“Soccer is the elusive, almost illusive woman you have taught yourself not to chase.”

—Me, right now, before I change my mind.

I’ve identified three problems with the American soccer missionaries.

1. Rarely—so rarely—have they been converted from Our Sports. I’ve never The Emblematic Womanheard anyone talk about how they used to be a football fanatic but have decided soccer is the better game.

Instead, you get the sense that ardent soccer fans in America have always felt alienated by the sports we love. Particularly football, and I say that because football seems to be soccer’s most direct competition—the bloodiest theater of the war. The missionaries will tell you about football. Football is slow and littered with interruptions. Football has about 12 minutes of ball-in-play action in any given three-hour game. Football is regimented, restricted.

But the lack of love weakens their credibility. If I’m a drug addict seeking redemption, I want to hear from the addicts who have recovered, not from the righteous Mormon at my door who’s never touched a drop of alcohol. If Terry Bradshaw phoned me up and spoke about his conversion to soccer, I’d be interested. Less so for the self-assured hipster who never succumbed to the old gridiron faith.

If you missed that magic, how am I supposed to trust you?

2. The missionaries say that soccer is the world’s most popular sport. And, to be fair, they’re 100% right. It’s so far beyond dispute that you can be institutionalized for disputing it in states where they care about mental health (California, Minnesota, maybe Wisconsin?).

By using this argument, though, they ignore the impressive American capacity for believing in our own superiority. And I’m not targeting some type here; I’m not pointing a finger at Tea Party hicks from wherever they’re from (Kansas, Texas, maybe Missouri?). I’m also including myself.

Take an example: as a younger person, I kept hearing that NASCAR was the fastest-growing sport in America. It was said in such a way as to seem meaningful, as though pretty soon every baseball stadium in the country would be converted to a racing oval. I stopped hearing it a while ago, for whatever reason, but at the time, that’s exactly how it was phrased: ‘fastest-growing sport.’ This spawned two reactions from me:

a) It must be bullshit. ‘Fastest-growing’ must be a weird language trick designed to disguise that football, baseball, and basketball are already huge and can’t actually grow much, percentage wise.

b) Actually, who gives a fuck? It’s NASCAR. It can grow as fast as it wants. I’m positive, smugly so, that nobody I ever care about will like NASCAR. The entire state of Alabama could change its name to NASCAR, and I still wouldn’t talk about it with my friends.

And that was with an American sport, mind you. My own countrypeople. If you told me that young men in Azerbaijan were going nuts about a game where you throw a machete at an old tractor tire, I would care even less.

So when the missionaries talk about soccer’s popularity, they believe they’re presenting a compelling argument. Hey, morons, listen: a whole world of humans is in love with this game. And for all we know, Earth is the only place in existence with sentient beings. So what we’re really saying is that, quite possibly, this is the most-loved sport in the entire universe. And not just now, but ever. In the whole expansive history of space and time, soccer is number one.

The logic seems sound. But what they’re doing is giving Americans an easy excuse to dismiss soccer and believe more fully in our own ignorance. We’re quite comfortable with the idea that we’re wiser than the rest of the world, and, by extension, the universe. By telling us that everyone else disagrees, the missionaries confirm an existing prejudice: everyone else is kind of an idiot.

3. They talk about soccer as ‘the beautiful game.’

I’ve come to the conclusion that soccer is, in fact, beautiful. But it’s beautiful in the way that life is beautiful, which is to say: not very often. Only in fleeting moments that vanish almost before you understood they were happening.

Imagine a friendly alien comes down to Earth. You’re eager to show him around, because, sure, we have our problems as a human race, but look at all the civilization! Look at the great buildings, and the great cities, and the picturesque countryside, and the thriving culture, and everything!

So you take the alien to New York City. You land just about dusk, and there, sitting on the sidewalk, is a homeless man. And not some profound, sagacious homeless man who dispenses pearls of wisdom; no, this is a homeless man who—bear with me—has just lost control of his bowels. And he’s kind of moaning in this awful, suffering way, and there are flies buzzing around his head. Then a woman walks by with her kid. She’s wearing a red business suit, and her black pumps are clacking on the concrete, and she says, “oh, that’s disgusting” loud enough for the homeless man to hear. “Come on, Jeremy,” she commands her child.

The boy is about 9 years old, and he’s just as fat as can be. He seems totally unaffected by the homeless man, and he giggles like an entitled little bastard just before he shoves fistfuls of candy into his mouth. The two leave, and the homeless man continues moaning, sitting there in his own waste. Just then, a car full of construction workers races past. One of them leans out the window, screams “get a job!”, and throws an empty whiskey bottle at the homeless man’s head.

You turn to the alien. “I swear,” you say, “that’s not what it’s like here.”

“No, I’m sure it’s great,” says the alien. “Still, it’s getting late…”

It’s the same story with soccer. Someone preaches about how, despite the scarcity of goals, the flow of the game is beautiful, even sublime. So you finally watch a match, and…

80 minutes pass with no goals. Both teams play cautiously, and the few offensive advances are snuffed out. In the 85th minute, the most annoying player on the team you like less pretends to be tripped in the penalty box. The replay shows he wasn’t touched, but he rolls around holding his knee, face contorted in agony, his free arm shaking in a gesture of dramatic supplication, exhorting God or the referee to answer the injustice. The referee, if not God, is fooled. Penalty awarded. The player pops up as though he’s never experienced anything less than perfect health. He buries the penalty, and the match ends 1-0.

Here’s the point: you can’t talk about the beauty of soccer. It will undermine itself every time.

Let me tell you two stories about small personal epiphanies that will bore you to death.

First, I was driving north on I-85 from Charlotte to Chapel Hill on a Friday evening. I had The Shins on the auxiliary iPod feed, and the song, “Mine’s Not a High Horse” came on. It’s a pretty good tune with a nice breezy feel and a good melody, but nothing noteworthy, at least as far as The Shins are concerned. It’s not fun like “Know Your Onion,” it’s not haunting like “Phantom Limb,” and it’s not gorgeous like “Saint Simon.” But ever since I discovered the song, sometime around 2004, one element of the chorus puzzled me:

You’ve got them all on your side
That just makes more for doubt to slaughter
“I never knew he thought that!”
I heard you say falling out of the van
“Don’t ask for his opinion
They ought to drown him in holy water!”
Will you remember my reply
When your high horse dies?

What bothers me is that he never clarifies the ‘reply.’ He builds it up into the climax of the chorus, this incredible reply that becomes the basis of the song, but he never says what it was! It struck me for so long as this great tease, something you could only ever know by asking James Mercer, and he probably wouldn’t tell you because musicians are mysterious like that.

But Friday, in the car, it hit me: the reply is the title of the song. THE REPLY IS THE TITLE OF THE FUCKING SONG! “Mine’s not a high horse.”

I almost drove into a ditch, I think. I blacked out and woke back up around Greensboro. A woman named Lucinda was in my passenger seat, smoking a cigarette and saying that if it were up to her, every golf course in America would be converted to low-income housing.

Second epiphany: 2007. Maybe 2008. No. Definitely 2007. I’m on the lunch break of a job I hate. It’s fall. There’s a nice cool wind blowing. I’m walking around the Tudor City, which is this little neighborhood for rich people in Midtown East sort of elevated above the city right next to the United Nations. There’s a garden there, and while I’m walking around, I see a dried maple leaf drifting down, making its only journey ever from branch to earth.

At the same exact time, the chorus of a song called “Women’s Realm” by Belle & Sebastian came over my headphones. (I thought so much of this song at the time that I later included it in the climactic scene of a screenplay I wrote called “The Carnival” about a lovelorn, semi-pathetic young white male who lived in a city and didn’t have much money and made some bad choices. Funny how that works.) Anyway, the breeze and the music and the maple leaf collided in a sort of perfect-storm moment, and I felt an inner rush happening. Without knowing why, my limbs grew goosebumps and my eyes filled with tears.

In my life, these two moments had their power. They happened in a way that was significant for me. But telling you about them? That accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t let you feel how I felt, just like if you explained your moment to me, I wouldn’t get it at all.

This, too, is the essence of soccer. I can’t tell you that Barcelona’s passing really was an elevated art form two Saturdays past; that they played like the whole match was choreographed and they could choose when to score, but that the ballet only called for three goals. That even the player I profess to hate, based on the automatic vibes cultivated from three decades of judging faces, scored the most beautiful goal of all on a curling kick to the top right corner.

With soccer, the experience is everything. The words accomplish nothing. I might as well try to explain the feeling of laughter, or bore you with the ridiculous plot of a dream that shook me to the bone.

Soccer is the elusive, almost illusive woman you have taught yourself not to chase.

Here I use the word ‘woman’ loosely, to mean any soul of any gender who spent a year or a decade sending us in loops. The Emblematic Woman. We’ve all been there. Maybe it took years for us to realize the loop was recursive. That even though the highs and lows feel different every time, they’re actually a place we’ve visited before.

Here are the plain facts about that Emblematic Woman:

  • She is almost totally unreliable.
  • She doesn’t actually care about you.
  • She will disappoint you more often than she will satisfy you.
  • You will always feel like you were so close, so tantalizingly close, to making things work.
  • You will feel that maybe it’s your fault, that maybe something about you was responsible for things not working out.

Which is why your friends and loved ones look at you like an idiot every time you try again. They’re able to see the ungarnished narrative, the never-ending pattern, the tale of hurt and impossible hope that has marked your entire history.

What they can’t see, and what kept you coming back, were those ephemeral moments of transcendent feeling that seemed to come from nowhere and represent the light side of the pain.

It takes time to understand that this momentary transportation isn’t worth the wind it’s carried off on, and that pain isn’t a prerequisite to the intense highs of love. But even stupid young people can be cured by time, and if we’re lucky we teach ourselves to stop chasing a future that plainly does not exist.

Soccer, though…well, let’s return to the facts, and replace ‘she’ with ‘soccer.’

  • Soccer is totally unreliable.

A rule of thumb is that when you expect electricity, you will be disappointed, and when you expect to be disappointed, the current will set your hair on edge. This is true of the Emblematic Woman, and it’s true of soccer. I remember waiting in front of a comedy theater once, expecting the night that would turn everything around. I thought I was older, that the same old story could be changed. But the girl didn’t care, and I spent the night in a petulant coldness. As usual, I’d expected too much. Before that, though, there were down times when I expected nothing and instead got the jolt of ecstasy that kept me in the loop. This is why it’s so easy to return.

I expected World Cup 2006 to be amazing. Instead, I got mononucleosis from a Bulgarian girl, and the referees ruined everything and the Italians won because they were the most convincing at falling when nobody touched them. I don’t necessarily blame soccer for the viral disease that ruined my summer, but the rest was squarely on its shoulders.

I expected the final in 2010 to be amazing. It wasn’t.

I expected the four matches between Real Madrid and Barcelona this year to be classics, due in no small part to the fact that the game itself was dubbed “El Clasico.” This was the worst kind of false advertising. The games I saw were boring and plodding and kept turning on a referee’s decision.

I didn’t expect much of World Cup 2010. But it had its wonderful moments, and I experienced a few of them (Germany’s awesome destruction of Argentina, Suarez’s Hand of God Part II) in unlikely bars in Ocean City, Maryland, with my stepfather.

I didn’t expect much of this year’s Champions League final. But there it went, crafty soccer, pulling a ridiculously good match from its bag of tricks and leaving me with my jaw on the floor.

  • Soccer doesn’t care about you.

Not even the most trifling, trace amount. I catch myself griping a lot about soccer in the aftermath of the disappointments. I even threaten to swear off the game entirely. This is not materially different from how I reacted to the Emblematic Woman during the bad times, grumbling about the lows, trying to recover some of the dignity so thinly spread in the aftermath of failed expectations, and vowing to end things completely.

The Emblematic Woman didn’t care. She felt little enough that her life would go on. Ditto for soccer. It will continue being the world’s most popular sport regardless of my condemnation.

  • She will disappoint you more often than she will satisfy you.

Oh God, yes. And I’m not just talking about the heartbreak. There will also be long, boring stretches where you don’t really know what’s happening and fall into a stupor. It’s like war, or a murder trial in real life.

  • You will always feel like you were so close, so tantalizingly close, to making things work.

If the referee hadn’t made that terrible decision, if Holland could have scored an early goal, if it wasn’t so smart to play a defensive style, if a few of the open chances had been converted…

  • You will feel that maybe it’s your fault, that maybe something about you was responsible for things not working out.

This one might be a stretch, granted. But I wonder, at times, if I’m not quite sophisticated enough to appreciate most professional soccer, or if I’m an idiot for watching matches when I know the chance of disappointment is well over 50%.

Soccer is going to let us down. But unlike the Emblematic Woman, I think we can afford to have soccer in our lives. I don’t think it’ll wreck us or lob constant grenades at our self-esteem. It may drive us crazy, but, since this is America, it will be a safe kind of crazy.

Mind you, there are some concrete problems buried deep in soccer’s enigmatic heart. The first is that the nature of the game makes it very difficult to appreciate good defense. This isn’t true with other sports. In football, there’s something gritty and awesome about a stalwart D. In baseball, great pitching is a thrill and great fielding can be spectacular. In basketball, good defense is relative; there’s still an awful lot of scoring. And I think LeBron James proved against Derrick Rose this year that once in a while, great defense can be profound on the hardcourt too.

But in soccer, unlike those sports, the defense begins at an extreme advantage. It’s fucking hard to kick a soccer ball into a net. Especially when you have people getting in your way, and especially when the last guy in your way is allowed to use his hands. Defenses in soccer are “good” by default. When they’re good by comparison, it can be kind of a bummer. Maybe it’s my naïveté, but I find it difficult to actually appreciate a defender accomplishing the feat of preventing a goal. It’s too easy, at least on the surface. Goals are a fucking miracle. Good defense? That’s just doing your job.

Also, soccer is predictable while seeming unpredictable. In the grand scheme, upsets don’t actually happen. The best club teams earn financial rewards to ensure that they stay the best club teams. In the World Cup, the home team wins a lot, and when they don’t, a powerhouse wins. The only traditionally “good” soccer team to never win a World Cup is Holland (and that’s only because, as David Winner points out in “Brilliant Orange,” the entire country is psychologically predisposed to being arrogant, underachieving fuck-ups), and a traditionally “weak” soccer country has never won. Ever.

And check out this excerpt from the book Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, where they talk about the eight phases of how England loses the World Cup every four years:

Phase 2: During the tournament England meets a wartime enemy.

Phase 3: The English conclude that the game turned on one freakish piece of bad luck that could happen only to them.

The book was copyrighted in 2009. In 2010, England met Germany, a wartime rival, in the round of 16. Trailing 2-1 in the first half, Frank Lampard scored a goal. Very literally, that is—he kicked the ball, it hit the top of the cross bar, and bounced in the net. England was back.

Except the refs didn’t see it. The ball bounced out of the goal, the Germans continued play, and England had been screwed again. Germany went on to win 4-1.

(Also, not to flog the metaphor, but a predictable outcome masked in a veneer of unpredictability is not atypical of the Emblematic Woman.)

Truthfully, a defensive sport with a dearth of upsets and a stagnant upper tier will always be hard for Americans to fully embrace. We’ll come to terms with it for short stretches, maybe, but it will frustrate us time and again. The thin white line between the scars of repeat disappointment and the allure of rare euphoria will become the dominant conflict motif as soccer tries to establish roots in our country.

What can I say about the Champions League final? I sat with some friends at a bar called The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill. My girlfriend and I drank mimosas because it reminded us of the morning World Cup matches last summer in New York. The bar was full in a very loose sense; the seats were all taken, and there were some (mostly Barça) jerseys giving the place color, but it was far from packed. This is North Carolina; even in a liberal Euro-friendly enclave like Chapel Hill, people don’t really care.

I bet my friend Andrew $5 that there would be a goal before halftime. Essentially, I was gambling on a good match. That day, soccer and I both won.

My resume is sadly thin, but along with Germany-Uruguay in the last World Cup, this was one of the two best matches I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed all 90+ minutes, including Rooney’s goal, and even a novice like me could appreciate Barcelona’s greatness. Just after the start of the second half, Andrew and I agreed on a double-or-nothing bet. If Messi or Rooney scored again, I’d win $5 more. If not, he’d get his original $5 back.

Then came the 54th minute, and the Argentine’s skidding shot. Andrew and I jumped from our barstools at the same time.

“Messsssi!” I shouted, exploring the bar’s limited space. He took off his hat and threw it at the vacant hostess stand.

In the moment, we looked like die-hards. It wasn’t just the money, either; the rhythm of the game had swept us along.

Alas, we’re not soccer fans. Not by any strict definition. At that exact instant, though, you couldn’t tell the difference between passion and love.

Shane Ryan lives in North Carolina and writes the blog Seth Curry Saves Duke! You can follow him on twitter at @SCurrySavesDuke.

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Soccer, America, and the Emblematic Woman

by Shane Ryan · June 21, 2011

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