Blogs > Liberty and Power > Everyone Watches Soccer/Cricket/Rugby Union, Except (Of Course) the Americans: Some Reflections

Jul 12, 2006 2:43 pm

Everyone Watches Soccer/Cricket/Rugby Union, Except (Of Course) the Americans: Some Reflections

The World Cup has just ended, with the Italians winning over the French. At the end of time, the score was 1-1. There were no goals in extra time, so a penalty shoot-out followed, which the Italians won, 5-3. (Huh?? -- see below.)

1. Every World Cup, routine pieces appear in the American press explaining why soccer simply _will not do_ for Americans. For a sample from 2006, see here, here, & here. And here is an earlier criticism of soccer.

Needless to say, to these American writers soccer is a peculiar & exotic activity from somewhere beyond the rim of the known [American] universe. It comes into that universe as something which will be forever alien. (Much the same applies to cricket, rugby union, etc.) The general gravamen of the complaints (about soccer) is two-fold: (a) Low scores, e.g., 1-0, 2-1, or even (gasp) 0-0!! In short, all that running around for nothing (just about.) Pointless. And see above, for the _World Cup_, no less: the result determined by alternate kicks at the goal, _after_ the game finished!! Irrational or what? -- American sports, by contrast, are high-scoring, i.e., effort brings its just reward.

(b) In soccer, grown men lie on the grass, clutching their legs, moaning, & rocking about -- _faking_ an ‘injury’ from a supposed foul. When the referee ignores them, they hop up cheerfully & all is normal. He-men ignore their injuries -- which, in red-blooded American games, are _real_, not put on to obtain an advantage.

But is this what aficionados look for in soccer matches? During the game, if (when) a goal is scored, do spectators groan & clutch their heads? Do they shout, ‘No, no’ ? Are they happiest when _no_ goals are made? Are soccer players trained to avoid goals at all costs? And do spectators look to see how well players fake injuries? Is this how soccer-watchers assess & rank players -- the latter’s skill at _pretending_ to be hurt? Is this also an important part of players’ training? -- Those who know soccer will know what the answers are, of course.

What, then, do spectators look for, in a soccer match? They come to see _the game_. Soccer is a _team_ game. Suppose Team A have possession of the ball. Then spectators watch to see:- How the players on that team make their way down the field towards the opposite team’s goal -- how Team A pass the ball around amongst themselves to exploit openings & opportunities as they appear, to confuse the opposing team, avoid their defences & frustrate their attempts to gain the ball. And also: How players on Team B set about gaining possession of the ball, how they block attempts by Team A to move forward, & so on. In short, what one looks for & discusses afterwards, is teamwork. And so:- which were the better team? All this is very broad brush -- inevitably. But it gives some indication of the general framework of the game, within which developments have occurred.

Soccer is also the most widely-played & -watched game in the world. There are some 214 countries & territories with ‘national’ football teams. Such teams consist of the very best professional players who happen to have that nationality. ‘National’ squads come together only for the World Cup, of course. Otherwise, many such players are members of the very best professional teams, in _various_ countries.

The areas that play soccer include all the DCs & the bulk of the LDCs (except for the very poorest/most isolated.) Culturally & socially, such areas run the entire gamut:- from the Netherlands Antilles, Antigua, Kuwait, Qatar, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu etc., at one end, to China, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Russia etc., at the other. Linguistically, they run from Mandarin, Korean, & Ukrainian, to Arabic, German, Portuguese (two types), English & Spanish in all their varieties. Thus in all these vastly different cultures & societies, there is nevertheless embedded a very significant _common_ component, of _mass_ culture.

Professional soccer players & coaches naturally form a _single_ multi-regional pool. The numbers of foreign players on the very top professional teams in England have risen steadily; English players are now a definite minority. So too many coaches come from other countries. And the story is the same for Germany, Italy, Spain & France. Thus ‘national’ squads very often contain players who play professionally in _other_ countries; almost the entire Brazilian ‘national’ team play abroad professionally.

Aside from the World Cup, there are many inter-regional tournaments, many of which are annual. Thus there is the UEFA Cup in Europe, & similar competitions in Latin America.

It is this multi-territoriality which American commentators cannot of course pick up (see further.)

2. Now for cricket. Americans boggle at a ‘game’ which goes on for five -- _five_!!! -- days & then ends in a draw (??!!!). -- There are now ODIs (‘One-Day Internationals’), but the point remains. -- Again, as with soccer, the object of the exercise is _not_ to avoid scoring runs. People are _not_ dismayed when one team actually wins. Rather the game is watched for the way it is played. Bowlers have different bowling techniques; batsmen have differing styles. People watch to see the battle of wits between bowler & batsman -- how the bowler varies his bowling; the batsman’s style in dealing with this; the captain’s strategy in sending out bowlers against batsmen, & vice versa; & so on.

Cricket, too, is _essentially_ a _multi-regional_ team game. The Australian, English, Indian, West Indian, South African, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, & Zimbabwean sides tour regularly. New Zealand & Bangladesh also play ‘internationals’. At present, Australia are the top team; for many years the West Indies held that position. Australian & West Indian players play for county sides in England; some counties even have Oz captains. Sir Garfield Sobers played for the West Indies, Nottinghamshire, & South Australia -- the last during the so-called ‘white Australia’ period. Thus again, an extremely important component of _mass_ culture in all these territories, is one which is _inherently _common_ to all.

3. Finally, rugby union (who??). This is the ancestor of American football. Rugby union is a mass game in New Zealand, Wales, parts of Ireland, the South-west of France, Fiji & Samoa. It is most definitely a middle- & upper-middle class game in England. In Australia, the managers play rugby union, the mass play rugby _league_ (otherwise played principally in the North of England.) Afrikaners dominate the South African game. It is a minority sport in Scotland & Zimbabwe.

Like soccer & cricket, rugby union is a _multi-regional_ team sport. There are regular international tours. The New Zealand All-Blacks are the top team. Until recently, the South African Springboks came next, but the French have overtaken them. Both ‘All-Blacks’ & ‘Springboks’ are known well beyond the rugby world. The All-Blacks open their matches with a ‘haka’ -- a Maori war challenge. Within Europe, the ‘Six Nations’ tournament covers Wales, England, Scotland, France & Italy. Otherwise, Argentina are a major player.

Thus when some crankish Americans took up soccer, cricket & rugby union (yes) seriously, American _teams_ were integrated smoothly into the varying worlds of these team games.

4. The American team sports are American football, baseball, & basketball. The last is played professionally in many other countries, but it is most definitely a _localised_ & a minority sport. Individual players may find careers in the US, but American basketball remains self-contained within the American universe.

Baseball is a popular spectator sport only in Japan. It is a distinct minority sport in Latin America, & a _very_ minor sport indeed in Korea & Australia. (Australians are sports-mad, they’ll play anything.) Again, it is highly localised. Individual American players are members of Japanese teams, & vice versa. Many young Latin American players are brought to the US & some succeed professionally. But American baseball too continues self-sufficient otherwise.

In England, American football is strictly an amateur game, played by English eccentrics, whose dottiness the governing body try hard to contain. E.g., for players’ identity cards, the rules require a proper passport-style photo, with ‘no silly antics’. In Germany, too, American football is very largely an amateur game. And obsessed as the Australians are with sport, they have (so far) drawn the line at American football.

5. In sum: American team sports are completely self-contained. American borders & the borders of these games are identical. These team games are an important part of _American_ popular culture _alone_; they most definitely are not multi-regional. While the worlds of soccer, cricket, & rugby union include DCs _&_ LDCs, American baseball stops at the Rio Grande; it cannot include Latin America (or Japan, for that matter.) And so, for the various peoples of the world, these games are _localised_ minority pursuits.

The team games that dominate the world, are inherently _multi-regional_. Soccer, cricket, & rugby union are major constituents of the popular culture of _multiple_ territories & societies. Thus the borders of the soccer, cricket & rugby union worlds are flexible & permeable. And so American teams joined in easily. For the overwhelming bulk of Americans, however, these particular team sports are peculiar, odd, & isolated minority pursuits.

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Sudha Shenoy - 7/17/2006

How many American commentators who want their fellow-Americans to watch soccer actually know/appreciate the game? How many are actually using yet another stick to beat their fellow-Americans with?

Jesse Walker - 7/16/2006

Oh, there's always some soccer-bashing too, usually from talk radio and conservative magazines.

Sudha Shenoy - 7/16/2006

Have a look at the links. There are other similar items.

Jesse Walker - 7/15/2006

"Every World Cup, routine pieces appear in the American press explaining why soccer simply _will not do_ for Americans."

I haven't done a quantitative study of the subject, and this might just reflect my unfortunate choices in reading material, but it seems to me that the routine pieces that appear are written by pro-soccer partisans, declaring that THIS TIME, for sure, soccer is about to catch on in the States; it's the fastest-growing game, don't you know; just wait and see, we'll join The International Community yet!

Or else they recognize that Americans don't like to watch soccer, and browbeat us for it.

Sudha Shenoy - 7/14/2006

I forgot to say -- there is a Pakistan cricket team playing 'test' matches against England at the moment (at Lord's cricket ground in north London.) This is routine. The England team also tour Pakistan. And so on, with the other major cricket-playing countries.

Sudha Shenoy - 7/14/2006

1. I _did_ say that many countries played basketball. American basketball, however, remains self-contained. The European basketball championships involve several rounds, so there is some _inter-European touring_. But not so in the wider basketball world. The World Championship is a one-off, four-yearly (?) event.

There is nothing like the regular tours found in rugby union & cricket. The New Zealand All Blacks & the South African Springboks are well-known throughout the rugger world, & _not_ just by name only -- they _play_ routinely in other areas, as do other teams. So too for cricket.

2. American commentators on soccer, whether referring to the US or not, always comment on an outre, 'foreign' sort of game. See for example, the articles I linked to.

Otto M. Kerner - 7/14/2006

Ms. Shenoy writes, "Needless to say, to these American writers soccer is a peculiar & exotic activity from somewhere beyond the rim of the known [American] universe. It comes into that universe as something which will be forever alien." On the contrary, as Steve Sailer points out, "Americans play soccer ... but we don't watch in on TV. Quite possibly, we'e found the world's best way to deal with soccer." So, no, soccer is not something bizarre and foreign to Americans. There's lots of soccer in the U.S., it's just not a popular spectator sport.

The argument that, "American team sports are completely self-contained. American borders & the borders of these games are identical" is an exaggeration and seems gratuitous in its implications. Basketball, in particular, has an international appeal (dwarfed by that of soccer, of course, but, then, so's everything) which is evinced by the international championships held by Yugoslavia and Argentina. Basketball also seems to be the most popular boy's recreational sport in China, which contains a rather large proportion of the world's population.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/14/2006

"It's... Monty... Python's... Flying.... Circus!!!!"

Sudha Shenoy - 7/13/2006

1. There is a considerable professional literature on sports history, including a journal. For the history of soccer, see esp. James Walvin, The People's Game, The History of Football Revisited, 2000.This also covers the international spread of the game. A forthcoming book, by Huw Richards, A Game for Hooligans, The History of Rugby Union,Nov 2006, does the same for that sport.

Professional sports historians offer a systematic & well-researched view, well grounded in the available documents etc. This is distinct from a novelist's treatment.

Note that the blog & what follows deal with _adult_ pursuit of the games concerned, as leisure activities & _also_ as spectator sports.

2. In the 19th century, Britain became one of the most urbanised countries in the world & the population increased nearly fourfold. That was when workingmen organised sports clubs & started playing rugby union (esp. in Wales). In 1895, the working class players of rugby league broke away, in the north of England. Soccer eventually evolved from rugby union, & the northern counties split between league & soccer.

Professional teams came in much later, in the late 19th century. The spectator sport was built on the amateur leisure pursuit. The latter came first, continued, & still continues, side by side with the professional sport. Clubhouses & playing fields are a standard feature of the urban landscape.

Cricket was a village game, which workingmen continued to play in the cities. (See above.)

3. All the three games above are widely played as leisure pursuits. But they are _organised_ games as well, with rules developed & then codified by working class ruling bodies. This has continued since the later 19th century.

4. Rugby union & cricket are played in many schools. The relatively small numbers who go on to university certainly continue playing there, if they want to. But note that I am talking about Britain here, not the US. American football & basketball as played in American universities are an indicator of what happens in the US only.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/13/2006

Well, personally, I think you're being very Old Etonian about it! There seems to be abundant evidence that all these games, and all their possible variations, were commonly played from time-immemorial, long before they were supposedly invented. What happened in the nineteenth century was that schoolmasters came along and wrote up rulebooks, probably in an effort to separate the rambunctious play of boys from actual fighting, and further, that university faculty adopted these games as part of an effort to turn undergraduates back from young-men-about-town into schoolboys.

I think one might add a technological factor. Organized team sports of this general type emerged at just about the time that the steam engine (in the form of the railroad) began to pose a threat to the horse. The classic upper-class sports were horse sports-- racing of course, but also fox-hunting, pig-sticking, and polo (a comparatively recent Indian import). One might perhaps make use of V. G. Kiernan's arguments about pistols, swords, and dueling. On a stagecoach, it was at least possible to ride on the top of the coach, and fraternize with the driver, and maybe even drive the coach under his supervision. A train was different. It was an obviously much faster way to go a considerable distance, but it boxed the traveler firmly into the identity of passenger. I suppose one could read Jules Verne's _Around the World in Eighty Days_ as a failed attempt to cast machine travel in a heroic vein. When one strips away the contrived accidents, the horrible truth is revealed-- all one had to do was to buy a ticket, and one would get there as fast as possible. It was in this mental climate that people suddenly started formulating leagues and world championships for games previously played by little boys and peasants, and not taken very seriously.

When I was a kid in Texas, circa 1970, there was a kind of free-form rugby that we used to play, called "quarterback smear," with no scoring, and no fixed teams, just scrum for the sake of scrum. It seems to have subsequently become known as "smear the queer." One would guess that this renaming is a way of deliberately making it socially unacceptable, probably with a view to fencing out the school teacher. The business of scorekeeping is essentially an adult introduction, with no relationship to the child's sense of time. When you find a scorekeeper, that is a sign that the game has been diverted from its inner essence to adult purposes. The question is, which adult purposes?

James Michener summed up his critique of commercialized sports, in his analysis of the Soap Box Derby scandal: "The evil always begins with adults who desperately want to win championships which were denied to them when they were boys. They use children, often not their own, to achieve this dream, and in doing so, pervert the normal experiences of youth." (Michener, Sports in America, p. 153, pbk. ed.) Discuss.

Russ Reeves - 7/13/2006

That some of these sports failed to catch on is no surprise; the point is where they do exist, imperialism seems a far more credible cause than "multi-regionalism," which is a consequence, not a cause.

And, there are in fact many Scottish Cricket clubs, though the sport is less popular than others (perhaps it can't compete with the multi-regional World Curling Championship, aka the Scotch Cup?).

But, I'd rather concede the entire argument than have to spend time on the World Cup website - I've had about all I can stand of World Cup news.

Sudha Shenoy - 7/12/2006

I forgot -- Scotland does _not_ play cricket. The Scots have had a common Crown with the English & the Welsh since James I (of England; James VI of Scotland) in the early 17th century. Nor does the Republic of Ireland play cricket. But it does play rugby union. The Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th century.

Sudha Shenoy - 7/12/2006

1. Soccer is played in hundreds of countries. Have a look at the FIFA or World Cup websites. And then have a look at the extent of the British Empire.

Soccer is _not_ popular in (eg)India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, SriLanka, Australia, New Zealand, Wales, the West Indies, Zimbabwe, Canada, & many other territories formerly/presently associated politically with Britain. Here, it is a minority sport.

3. Rugby Union is a major game in the South West of France, in the villages; in Italy, & in Argentina (inter alia.) It is _not_ a popular game in innumerable territories that were previously part of the British Empire, notably South Asia, the West Indies, West & East Africa (inter alia.)

4. Certainly cricket is a major game in many regions that were once part of the British Empire. But it is precisely these areas that do _not_ find soccer or rugby union palatable (see above.)I doubt if the Colonial Office went _that_ far. or perhaps it did? And how did it capture the world for soccer?

Ashes SeventySeven - 7/12/2006

I remember a professor describing a visit to the Soviet Union in 1980. He said it was as if a layer of yellow-tinged gelatin closed around him when he left the airport. That is what visiting the USA is like now.

Russ Reeves - 7/12/2006

The world-wide spread of these sports is not because they are "multi-regional" but rather because they are (were) British Imperial. Cricket is popular in England, *and* former British colonies? Well, imagine that!

Sudha Shenoy - 7/12/2006

1. First, the links. The first article, by Robert Loiederman, 'American optimism explains refusal to embrace soccer', op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, 8 June 2006, appears to have gone behind subscription. The next two work. They link to Jonathan Last's article & the one by Cannon & Lesser. The last link also works. It goes to Michael levin, 'Capitalism & American Sport'.

2. Neil Tranter, Sport, Economy, and Society in Britain 1750-1914 (Cambridge UP 1998) is an excellent bibliographical study, a professional one. It gives a broader picture as compared with a few passages from a single, atypical autobiography.

3. It is well-known that American football developed out of rugby union. The latter developed on the playing-fields of Rugby, the English 'public school'.Welsh miners, amongst others, then took it up. Now, in the late 20th century, an extraordinarily wide range of classes play the game. That was the point of my survey.

4. Soccer is played by several hundred millions of people in hundreds of countries. These players do not set out to deliberately injure one another. The rules are quite plain & referees routinely 'book' players or send them off (as happened in the 2006 World Cup).

Andrew D. Todd - 7/12/2006

I have some comments on your citation practice, for which see below.

I don't know if you have read Brendan Behan's _Borstal Boy_ (1958). He has some interesting observations about the relationship between Soccer and Rugby. Behan was born into the urban working class, a Dubliner, and became a member of the IRA as a teenager. In 1939, at the age of sixteen, he was sent to England as a terrorist. He promptly got caught, and, being underage, was sentenced to a Borstal School. He wound up serving his time at an "open" Borstal, Hollesley Bay, on the Suffolk coast, with a bunch of boys who were mostly in for minor theft, and a few "HMP" cases. This was short for "His Majesty's Pleasure," or preventative detention, ie. boys, who had killed someone under provocation, typically their girlfriends in fits of jealousy. An authentic teenage gangster would have gone to a "closed" Borstal instead. In sending Behan to an open Borstal, the British government tacitly conceded his claim to be a Prisoner of War. In the 1930's, the IRA was openly running youth programs in Ireland, on much the same basis as the Boy Scouts. Behan was both literate, and an apprentice house painter-- in short, he was conspicuously distinct from a career criminal. There was considerable reason for everyone to believe that Behan was effectively in the service of the Irish government, or a faction thereof, and that England's remedy was ultimately to resolve its differences with Dublin. The prison doctor said to Behan, "I suppose this is all jolly good for your election manifesto when you want to enter the Irish Parliament, but it's damm' well not fair to me, wasting my time." (p. 144) The general ethos of Hollesley Bay was pretty much that of a boarding school, except that the boys did agricultural and construction work, instead of cramming latin. There is no question which the average boy would prefer. The staff organized a rugby team, which played against a British Army team. Rugby was part of a more or less conscious plan of re-ruralizing kids, similar to Father Flanagan and Boys' Town.

At home in Dublin, Behan had played soccer. As he put it, soccer "... is the game of the streets, where the ball is kept low and does not break many windows, and you are not often brought down on the hard asphalt." (p. 323) This, of course, assumed that the street would be essentially empty, because there were few automobiles at this date. Effectively, the logic of Dublin soccer was the same as that of Harlem basketball, with the sole difference that America has a lot more automobiles than Europe did. Both are exercises in inventing a game which will fit into the minimal open spaces of urban proletarian housing. Under American conditions, the "found space" was likely to be a vacant lot, thirty feed wide, surrounded by blank walls, where a rowhouse had once stood.

Parenthetically, I ran across a British illustration, circa 1830, showing a recognizable game of proto-basketball played in England's Newgate Prison, in a huge, more or less barnlike barracks room.

American football, as James A. Michener noted in his _Sports in America_ (1976), was associated with underground coal mining and steel mill towns. The places where boys played football with sufficient seriousness to get college athletic scholarships were places where the achievable good job, deep underground, was as dangerous as combat. Now, of course, most of the underground mines are gone, and the pattern is different. American coal towns tend to have a lot of open spaces, suitable for playing American football, unlike, say, Welsh coal towns.

The classic proletarian spectator sports vary from country to country, but they have certain common characteristics. One of the most important characteristics is that the sport is not a game-- on the contrary, it is a Darwinian struggle for escape from the conditions of the players' birth. As Michener notes, the odds are about 50,000 to one against the player achieving any kind of long-term success, even while sacrificing his chance to get an education. The highest form of spectator sport is the gladiatorial games, and there is a tendency for spectator sports to devolve into gladiatorial games, driven by the logic that if a player is sufficiently injured, he will not be able to play, and will therefore lose by default. Look at Pat Conroy's novel _The Great Santini_ for a good exposition of this logic.

In the United States, soccer is an amateur game, precisely because it is not played professionally, and it would be fairly difficult and expensive to import a "mercenary" into a game played by fifteen-year-olds. The point is, you don't want to play with people whose rational calculation involves putting someone in the hospital to improve the odds, or who routinely have criminal associates. Michener discusses this kind of thing extensively, especially as applied to American Little League baseball. _Sports In America_ is the single "must read" book about sports in general. By contrast to things like football, American soccer is the modern feminist little girl's game, par excellence, displacing ballet lessons.


In the first place, TinyURL's just do not work very well. Especially in the case of newspaper articles, the URL's are notoriously unstable, and it is important to cite things by the numbers. With cut-and-paste, this is no more difficult than spell-checking.

Now, I take it that you are referring to the following four articles:
David Steele, "After years of rejecting its pitch, I'm on soccer's side," _Baltimore Sun_, Originally published Jul 10, 2006,0,5923543.column?coll=bal-sports-columnists

Jonathan V. Last, "Foul!: Why, despite everything, America will never embrace soccer," _Weekly Standard_, 06/22/2006 12:00:00 AM

Frank Cannon & Richard Lessner, "Nil, Nil: The nihilism of soccer: The more you look, the less there is to see," _Weekly Standard_, 06/23/2006 12:00:00 AM

Tim Swanson, "Separation of Sport and State," Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Posted on Wednesday, July 05, 2006.

Another interesting article is:


Steve Sailer, "One World Cup: Soccer gives American elites the chance to celebrate nationalism in other countries but not ours," _The American Conservative_, July 17, 2006 Issue

Which touches on the professional/amateur distinction.
Brendan Behan, _Borstal Boy_, 1958, pbk. ed. Berkley Windhover, 1975

Sudha Shenoy - 7/12/2006

Many thanks. I'm glad it was useful. The 'internationalisation' of many aspects of popular culture is an important legacy from that greatest of centuries, between 1815 & 1914.

Mark Brady - 7/12/2006

I shall be referring people to this post for months and years to come.