It's the time of the year when the baseball season is starting to take shape and basketball and hockey playoffs are starting to boil. The biggest heavyweight title fight in years is on the horizon. And as happens every four years, some people want us to feel guilty for not paying enough attention to soccer.
"It's the biggest and most popular game in the world," you can hear some soccer official arguing just about any night of the week on a late-night sports show. "It's just a matter of time before America starts to come around."
I shake my head when I hear arguments like this; I wonder if such faulty reasoning stems from an ignorance of the rest of the world or of just America. Yes, OK, soccer is the most "popular" game in the world. And rice is the most "popular" food in the world. So what? Maybe other countries can't afford football, basketball and baseball leagues: Maybe if they could afford these other sports, they'd enjoy them even more.
It's no mystery why soccer is popular worldwide: It's the only sport where all nations can compete. It's the only sport where, in theory at least, Cameroon has a chance at beating Russia. This is, of course, because, played at a high level at least, soccer talent does not vary widely. It's the reason so many parents want their kids to play it, because they can have a modicum of athletic ability and still look good in a game. What the hell, it's the reason I liked playing soccer so much. I wasn't tall enough for basketball nor strong or fast enough for football and I didn't have the arm or hand-eye coordination for baseball. But I could run around on a soccer field all afternoon and walk off feeling good because my team only lost 2-0. (I would never admit to myself that 2-0 in soccer was like 37-0 in football.)
The truth is I do feel a little guilty about not reading or writing more about World Cup soccer. It's like that edifying but boring article in the New York Review of Books that you feel guilty for not having tackled. To be churlish about soccer is to indicate that you're not a good European or a good world citizen, or something like that. Instead of being self-centered Americans who only care about whether Roger Clemens is going to win his 300th game or whether the New Jersey Nets can possibly beat the L.A. Lakers, we're supposed to show some higher consciousness and root for Kenya against Germany.
Every four years we get the same statements from the same people about the future of soccer in the U.S. Every four years we're supposed to worry whether an American men's team reaches the second round of the World Cup, as if that will trigger the soccer chain reaction that will put professional soccer on the national sports landscape. Why should it, I wonder, when the women's victory in the last World Cup didn't do it? Nonetheless, everyone connected with Major League Soccer is convinced this will happen -- and that by 2005 every MLS soccer team will have its own soccer-only stadium -- despite the economic climate and also despite the fact that all other major American professional sports so overlap each other that there isn't a lick of time during which at least two other sports aren't challenging soccer for TV time (to say nothing of TV money).
No one wants to address the really sore point about what's wrong with American soccer, namely that when a more than moderately talented U.S. soccer player appears, he gets snapped up by a foreign league. It ought to be axiomatic by now that American soccer can never grow without American players, but no sooner do they shine in World Cup competition than they get signed to play overseas. In other words, no one wants to mention the unmentionable -- namely that American success in the World Cup will lead directly to a talent drain afterwards. Which, simply put, means that the World Cup isn't part of the solution for American soccer, it's part of the problem.
A number of baseball writers are having their jollies at the expense of Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks, who, God knows, has earned it. "From now on, we're going to play within our means," said Hicks the other day. "We're going to look to break even. Breaking even is at least a start." Hicks was referring, of course, to the $256 million the Rangers paid to Alex Rodriguez, only to find that they had raised the bar for top salary players while making the team worse. I first heard about this on Al Trautwig's cable sports show on MSG, which might not be available to most of you in the country, but Trautwig's reaction, I'm sure, could stand in for most of the columnists' reactions in your hometown papers: "Silly me," said Trautwig, mimicking Hicks, "Here I go screwing things up by blowing my budget on a single player and now I find out that we're in the red."
I'm not picking on Trautwig here; he's one of the more intelligent observers of the baseball economic scene, and for him to say something so stupid indicates how little the rest of the sports press really understands. First of all, Hicks' statements are dishonest and he knows it: If his team is in the red, it's not because of Alex Rodriguez but despite him. Hicks and the Rangers did not pay Rodriguez $25 million a year -- they passed along the $25 million a year they got from the new cable deal which they were able to make in the first place because of signing Rodriguez. Second, the Rangers sold a slew of extra tickets -- not to mention hot dogs, cups of beer and souvenirs -- because of A-Rod. Instead of sitting back and counting that extra money, why didn't they invest it in some pitching?
When the sports press misunderstands transactions as simple as the Rodriguez deal there's no hope they're going to make any sense of the coming apocalypse.