I've been trying to give casual soccer fandom a go the past few years. I've learned to appreciate the flow of the Beautiful Game, have come to enjoy the bigger international matches, especially the World Cup but also tournaments like the current Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
So I was happily watching the Sweden-Greece match Tuesday afternoon, the Swedes leading 1-0, when the thing that drives me crazy about soccer raised its ugly head.
Actually, it didn't raise its head. It lay there on the grass like a corpse.
As an American brought up on the big four sports here, I just can't get around the fact that soccer players act like such weenies so often. As silly as they are, those war metaphors that have been connected to sports like football and even baseball have some resonance.
Fans of those sports will put up with the occasional delicate soul if he's talented enough -- nobody expected Wayne Gretzky to grind in the corners or drop the gloves -- but we expect our athletes to be fighters, to leave it all out there, battle to the final whistle and so on.
Soccer players would do that if they weren't so busy feigning injuries.
Even soccer fans, even the ones who call it football, complain about this. They put up with it the way basketball fans put up with the random officiating. But what happened on Sweden's second goal Tuesday went beyond the usual writhing in the grass at midfield, the stretcher-magic spray-miraculous recovery minuet.
It was the 72nd minute, Sweden on the attack. Greek goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis made a point-blank save on Fredrik Ljungberg's shot. The rebound bounced right to Swede Johan Elmander, who reacted quickly but was only able to pop it into the air, toward the goal. Nikopolidis, Henrik Larsson of Sweden and Greek defenders Giourkas Seitaridis and Sotirios Kyrgiakos gathered under the falling ball, a few feet in front of the goal.
Larsson leapt for a header, and as he did Kyrgiakos put his shoulder to Larsson's belly. He looked like a defensive back hitting a wide receiver who's jumping for a pass. The bump kept Larsson from reaching the ball, which instead hit Kyrgiakos on the back of the shoulder as he fell to the ground -- where he lay motionless.
An off-balance Larsson managed to get his left knee on the bouncing ball, and in a flash it ricocheted off Seitaridis' swinging left foot, off both of Larsson's thighs and then right between Nikopolidis' legs for the goal. Kyrgiakos still lay on the grass, obviously deceased.
Until about two seconds later, when he lifted his head. Then he sat up, looking far more disappointed then hurt, before getting up and walking away. He didn't need medical attention.
The goal put the game away. And Kyrgiakos' pathetic display, quitting on a crucial play in front of his own net, was so ordinary it barely rates a mention. None of the commentators on ESPN said a word about it. I Googled around for a good little while Wednesday, and all I could find was this note on a Goal.com player-rating page:
Sotirios Kyrgiakos: (6.5) -- The most impressive and capable of Greece's three centre-backs but was woefully indecisive for Hansson's fortuitous goal.
He looked pretty decisive to me. He decided to play dead.
Can you imagine a hockey defenseman lying motionless during a scramble in front of his own goal? He'd still be fighting for the puck even if he'd lost a limb or two. If you're going to act like you've been KO'd during a play, you'd damn well better be out when the whistle blows.
Am I really supposed to root for a team that has guys on it who'll do that? And is there a soccer team anywhere that doesn't have guys on it who'll do that? How do soccer fans not feel betrayed by players on the home team when they act that way?
Way to fight, bro. I liked how you pretended not to breathe. Nice touch.
Sweden's first goal was a thing of beauty, a rocket off the foot of star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That kind of thing's easy to watch.
"It really gets on everyone's nerves," a soccer-loving friend said when I complained about Kyrgiakos' possum act. "I don't think I've ever heard someone not complain about it. But you do what you can."
Do what you can. If soccer players lived by that credo, my biggest complaint would go away.