I first watched the FIFA World Cup soccer matches in 2002 when the network operations center I was working in decided to dedicate 4 of the 12 large screens that made up our network overview monitor to show the matches. (We had a number of foreign-born employees there and it was a very big deal to them.) I’d never so much as watched a soccer game previous to that so, while enjoyable, I wasn’t that invested in it. The 1 thing I remember thinking as we watched several of the matches was how the players on most of the teams – and we watched mostly European and South American teams playing, such was the luck of the draw – would dramatically fall to the ground and flail around as if they’d been hacked with an axe at the slightest touch from another player. I remember seeing them shamelessly mugging it up in an effort to draw the referee into laying a foul on the opposing team and thinking that it was extremely poor sportsmanship.
Years later and several World Cups more under my belt, I believe I’m not revealing any secrets when I say that the practice has done nothing but get worse. I’ve listened to all manner of explanations over the years as to why professional soccer hasn’t really caught on in America. Some have said it’s because there’s no real action in the game. (Oh, please. These people have never watched baseball? The games last, like, 4 hours and there’s a grand total of 7 minutes and 12 seconds of actual action involved.) I think what they mean is that there’s no scoring, with a high-scoring soccer match being considered a game where 1 team scores 4 times. I don’t equate score to a level of action in the game, but I get the point. Some have said it’s because there’s not enough contact. If that’s all there was to it, rugby would be the national sport. No, I honestly believe that Americans look at the drama-queen tactics of these players, rolling around on the field clutching their knee as if they’ve had it hacked off by William Wallace when another player casually brushed against the opposite elbow, and they just innately get the same sense I do: these players are trying to cheat.
As much as cheating happens in America, in all kinds of places and endeavors, the American people do not approve of cheating. And trying to leverage the referee to penalize the opposing team in order to gain a field advantage by falsely hyping up the lightest contact rather than getting the ball down the field and into the goal through superior gameplay is cheating. That’s why the sport doesn’t draw Americans to watch it, at least not at the professional level. My daughter plays soccer and she loves it. I love watching the games they play but when one of them goes down on the field, it’s because they’ve been hit – hard – not because they want to make the ref pull out a yellow card in sympathy. They don’t roll around, faces in dire agony, and then pop back up and be running at full speed 30 seconds later.
My advice to the world of professional soccer – and yes, I’m gonna use a sexist-based comment because it’s appropriate, here – is: Man up. Take the hit but shake it off and get back in there. Don’t give us an Oscar-level performance trying to get a penalty kick, give us a world-class performance threading around the opposing team members and let loose a cannon shot that smacks the goalie into the net along with the ball. Do that, and then you’ll have Americans support your sport like no other.