World Cup Play: Let’s Get Over Ourselves and Have a Good Match

Did you read Ann Coulter’s column this week? She begins, “I’ve held off on writing about soccer for a decade — or about the length of the average soccer game — so as not to offend anyone.” Well, I guess she couldn’t wait any longer, because she has struck a proverbial cord, and it was high voltage.

She has decided, “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” And she’s just getting warmed up.

So dumbfounded was I to read her list of objections, I had to conclude she was either:

  1. Sarcastic as the result of a bad youth soccer experience,
  2. Angry because the World Cup was stealing her thunder so she decided to heave some lightning bolts of her own, or
  3. Completely ignorant of the game and what it means, having never had anyone to explain it to her. (Although with that attitude I can imagine why.)

As I have never met Ms Coulter, I thought I’d give her the benefit of the doubt and presume ignorance. But ignorance gone to seed is a very dangerous thing. I thought she might need some clarification and enlightement, so I wrote her a letter.

Dear Ms. Coulter, may I call you Ann?

I’ve been writing about soccer for more than a decade, and I am delighted you have seen fit to comment on it, finally. I guess that means we must have reached the big time. We have reached round of 16 – that is, we’re among the top 16 countries in the world – and that is actually in the world because the whole world plays this game.

Pretty much no one thought we could do this. The tension is mounting and that excitement is why, more than ever, Americans are watching. Millions more.

And, mind you, we’re not just watching from our cushy couch seats. Across the country we’re gathering with old and new friends at bars and restaurants or standing shoulder to shoulder at outdoor venues to watch. So determined are we to have the latest that we risk sneaking clandestine glances at our phones and laptops for updates during the workday. We’d prefer you not rat us out on that last one.

So, given the upsurge in interest in this game, it is surprising that you find it so distasteful. I’ve taken the liberty of addressing some of your objections. Can we talk?

You say that individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. I’d say that Messi, Ronaldo, Mueller, Klose, Robben, Neymar, James,  among others, could be considered pretty high achieving. But in soccer individual achievement is set aside for the good of the team. We choose to deflect glory as the result of individual achievement; this is considered evidence of good character.

You say that there are no heroes, no losers, and no accountability. Well, young John Brooks became an American hero just the other day. His Wikipedia page said so. As to losers, we are seeing teams sent home daily, some perhaps to dubious welcomes in their home countries, an accountability of a sort I wouldn’t be proud to see in my country.

You say that perpetually alarmed women are called “soccer moms,” not “football moms.” Ah, but there are similarly alarming football moms, hockey moms, cheerleading moms and lacrosse moms. In fact, one of my neighbors had a bumper sticker that read, “My lacrosse mom can beat up your soccer mom.” I refrained from pressing the point. She moved away and we never got to find out, which is probably just as well.

You are confused about why you can’t use your hands in soccer. Well, yes, that is why it is called football (futbol, everywhere but in the US), which makes perfect sense because you play it with your feet. Why in the world a game played almost exclusively with the hands would be called football is beyond me. But, you’re right, it would be much easier to use our hands. Soccer players prefer a challenge.

You say that no serious sport is co-ed, even at the kindergarten level. Now I know you’re joking. The boys in my kindergarten class were happy to have me on their teams. I could kick, throw and hit most any ball over their heads. They didn’t see me as a girl, they saw me as a teammate. I let them play on my team. They returned the favor.

You find it boring that no other “sport” ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer. Yes soccer is not a high-scoring game. It’s more like a pitcher’s duel, but unlike in baseball where 2 guys just play catch for 9 innings, soccer action is constant and scoring is made even more exciting by the fact that it’s nearly impossible. If you find it entertaining to watch people running for their lives from the “300-pound bruisers trying to crush you,” you have observed in gridiron football, tune into any “action” movie to get your fix.

You suppose that either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.  Oh, don’t count us out here. We are very capable of personal humiliation (See: Suarez, Luis). And major injury? That’s a bit of a sore subject for me, but I understand that Axel Witsel a midfielder for Belgium, actually launched himself into an opponent causing open fractures of the tibia and fibula. Now if that is not major injury, I’m not sure what is. We also have our share of crashes and bashes, broken noses and torn ligaments, stitches and crutches. But I really don’t want to brag, so I’ll stop there.

You seem to resent the world’s suggestion that soccer is worth watching because it’s ‘un-American.’ Well there are over 13 million people playing soccer in the US — 3 million of them kids — and it is the world’s most popular sport. Yes, it’s an import; it come to us from overseas. But isn’t that who we are? Lady Liberty herself says silently, “bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We welcome others to our shores, complete with their different traditions, cultures and languages.

You don’t like metric. I’ve never been much good at conversions either, but do you really find it simpler to visualize because “An inch is the width of a man’s thumb, a foot the length of his foot, a yard the length of his belt.” I’ve learned to measure things even without a man around.

You debate whether soccer is really “catching on.” Yes, record-setting ratings for the USA-Portugal game (overtaking the previously record-setting 1999 Women’s World Cup final) may take a back seat to gridiron telecasts, but count me in on watching both those soccer games. In 1999 I watched along with my soccer-loving daughters who immediately took to the pitch determined to become the next Mia Hamm or Brandi Chastain. How many football viewers get out and play after stuffing themselves with munchies and washing it down with several brews? What really do we want to have catching on: obesity or athleticism? But now we’re back to those 300 lb linemen.

Granted, 111 million viewers of the Super Bowl is impressive, but crowning ourselves ‘world champions’ of a game played mostly on American soil is a bit haughty, don’t you think? And how many of those viewers are one-timers just tuning in for the great commercials? Which, by the way, soccer doesn’t have because it only breaks for halftime and is subject to a running clock. Running – as in continuous – not stopping all the time to catch your breath. Now that’s impressive!

So yes, Ms Coulter, I watch, even though both of my great-grandfathers were born in this country. I am more than happy to enjoy the viewing along with friends and neighbors representing various nations, races and ages. And yes, here in America we have adopted a sport brought by our friends from overseas, and we’re growing to love it. I am seeing this World Cup bring us together like never before, cheering for plays made by strong, courageous, athletic young people who dazzle us at every turn. Anywhere I go, a wish of  “Happy World Cup day” brings a smile. (Hey, in a nation where people find Merry Christmas insensitive, this is progress!) World Cup 2014

Now Team USA has reached the knockout round and the stakes are higher than ever. Nobody thought this ramshackle bunch of guys had a chance against the world’s finest. They’re half this and half that, born in this country and abroad, skin tones of all shades, hair a-plenty and hair absent, youngsters and veterans, hard scrabble and privileged – a veritable melting pot of shades, styles, accents and approaches. Diversity a -plenty.

How do they even talk to each other? I wonder. But then, who needs words? I know:

  • the guy who belly-flopped after barely being brushed in the penalty area was awarded a cheap PK.
  • the guy whose ankle just twisted under the weight of an opponent’s foot is going to have a painful night.
  • the man with a biting problem missed what he was supposed to learn in kindergarten.
  • the young man who chested the ball to his foot and then rocketed a finish has spent his life preparing for that moment.
  • the guy in tears just let go of the dream he gave everything to keep alive.

No translation necessary. That’s the beauty of this game; everyone understands it. Well, perhaps not everyone, but I have hope for you, Ms. Coulter.

Let’s imagine a world where all ages, nations and races could sit next to one another while diligently rooting for their own countrymen, and as the final whistle blows they could shake hands, congratulating winners, consoling losers, and all go home in peace. 

Ms. Coulter, that is the furthest thing from moral decay; it’s the highest form of morality I know.

Our world speaks daily of its excesses and injustices, without saying anything at all. We all see this differently and are free to express our opinions. That’s part of what makes our nation great.

But there is no excuse for ignorance when the answer is plainly before us and we refuse to see it. One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. By all, we mean all, Ann.

Yours Truly,

Wendy LeBolt

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