Watching Soccer While American

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Landon Donovan, the temperamental star of U.S. soccer, is from my home town in California. So that must count for something. (USA Today Sports)

In two previous posts, here and here, I described my grave Twitter mistake: appearing to make fun (gasp!) of English soccer being shown on U.S. TV, without adding a #sarcasm hashtag.

On the other hand, I’m an American, and I just find American-style football, for instance the latest Packers-Cardinals drama, way more interesting to watch than the “oh, it’s another one-nil cliffhanger” international kind.

A reader from America, now living in Portugal, tells me how to straighten things out:

One of the nice civilized things here is that there are about two café’s or restaurants per block, and café’s also server beer and wine. Also, every café  and restaurant always has a large screen TV with a permanent soccer game going on day and night. After a while I have finally figured out the right way to enjoy European TV soccer.

First of all, I am still very "American", and to me, seeing a soccer game on TV looks just like a lot of people screwing around to little purpose or effect. I played soccer in high school (back before it was popular), so I should understand it better, but I always played defence, where the problem presented was a bit more clear cut. But I also knew the joys(?) of playing Pop-Warner football, and growing up my father (a former college football player) watched football (American football) exclusively. So I understand American football as well.

American football is very "American" in the good sense of what makes the country truly great. In each play you start with a definite plan, you announce the plan to your team ahead of time, you execute on the plan, and then you see how well the plan worked. Sort of like getting to the Moon. It is all the "can do",  "get up and go", "man, moon decade" and Babe Ruth pointing to the fence attitude that "won the war" and is one of the good things about America.

Soccer, though, if you look at what the offence is doing, they just go out and screw around and sees if anything turns up by luck. One can argue that that is more like life than the "execute to plan" of American football.  But for entertainment one is looking for something besides the meaningless random existential fog that one has to deal with every day.

Basketball and hockey are also like soccer in that way, but those sports have the advantage of the field of play being smaller and the action being faster. Soccer looks too much like some post-post-modern French movie of people lost in a field with no purpose.

But that is actually the whole point of enjoying it. You go into a cafe with friends, have a drink of something and on the wall is this large picture of a pleasant green field, with a lot of colorful little dots running around on it. Even the ref's are colorful, for goodness sake. It is very visually pleasant and relaxing, and you can go on with your drink and conversation with a half an eye on this live oil painting. The sound is usually turned off, or at least way down, so it doesn't interfere with the important business of drinking and talking.

And then every now and then, hopefully in a break in the conversation, something exciting happens. You'll know when that happens because there will be a noise from across the room from someone who was actually watching it at the time, and you can then see the exciting bit several times over in a minute on the instant replay. And if the conversation turns good and you miss large chunks of the game, no problem, you really didn't miss anything.

It is not how us Americans "won the war" and "got to the moon.” It is not "plan, execute, evaluate,” like D-Day. It is certainly not something you would sit down and watch moment-by-moment by yourself. You can never say "good plan!" or "good execution!" It is more like, when watching the instant replay after hearing a noise from across the room: "wow, that was a lucky shot!” It is kind of like watching a bunch of people in the country who are having a picnic and playing the lottery at the same time.

If you find yourself saying “have a g*d plan and execute on it for c*s sake!” or “just hit him and be done with it!,” then it's time for American football. But if the drinks and friends are good, then in a lull in the conversation  you can look up and say "my that was lucky" and then get back to the more important business.

Or, if you find yourself alone with the wives at the table, you can sit back and look at a large vivid live oil painting on the wall and try to figure out which one of those brightly colored things is the ref.