Alex Massie

The Never-Ending Neoconservative War on Soccer

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Long-time readers may recall that one of this blog's minor amusements is chronicling the ridiculous extent to which some Americans - mainly, it must be said, on the right - go in their efforts to decry the baleful influence of soccer upon the American ideals of manly sporting excellence. There was, for instance, this example in March, complaining about the insidious impact soccer was having on the culture of suburban America.

Now, in the aftermath of the United States' surprising victory* against Spain this week, Gary Schmitt, once of the Project for a New American Century and now residing at the American Enterprise Institute, complains that:

As someone who didn’t play soccer growing up, but had a dad who did and whose own kids played as well, I can say unquestionably that it is the sport in which the team that dominates loses more often than any other major sport I know of. Or, to put it more bluntly, the team that deserves to win doesn’t. For some soccer-loving friends, this is perfectly okay. Indeed, they will argue that it’s a healthy, conservative reminder of how justice does not always prevail in life.

Well, hooey on that. And, thankfully, Americans are not buying it. In spite of the fact that one can drive by an open field on Saturdays and usually see it filled with young boys and girls playing soccer, the game’s popularity has not moved anywhere toward being a major sport here in the United States. It’s grown for sure but not close to where folks once expected it to be given the number of youth that have played the game over the past two decades.

For sure, there may be a number of reasons that is the case but my suspicion is that the so-called “beautiful game” is not so beautiful to American sensibilities. We like, as good small “d” democrats, our underdogs for sure but we also still expect folks in the end to get their just desert. And, in sports, that means excellence should prevail. Of course, the fact that is often not the case when it comes to soccer may be precisely the reason the sport is so popular in the countries of Latin America and Europe. 

Well, sure, soccer isn't threatening the NFL's supremacy but it's worth remembering that the 2006 World Cup final drew a bigger television audience in the United States than did baseball's World Series that year.

For that matter, Schmitt's contention that soccer favours the underdog "more than any other major sport" is in fact hooey itself. It's baseball that does that. For instance, West Bromwich Albion, the worst team in the English premiership last season, won just 21% of their matches. But in baseball, even the worst team (hello, Washington Nationals!) can expect to win approximately 30% of their games, while the best teams in baseball will be defeated 40% of the time. That's because, for all its many splendid qualities, the outcome of a single baseball game owes more to luck than is the case for a given contest in just about any other sport. That's one reason why the World Series is played over seven games and, for that matter, why the regular season lasts 162 games: it's designed to minimise randomness and the role of blind chance in the game.

Actually, now that I think of it, it's perfectly possible to reach the NFL play-offs with a 10-6 record - ie, despite losing 37.5% of your games.

And if we are to talk about sporting meritocracy, we might consider the Darwinian competition enshrined in european sports leages that provide for promotion and relegation and contrast that to the cosy, anti-competitive cartels that run American sports and in which money is diverted from the richest and most successful to the weakest and the mismanaged. (Hello, LA Clippers!).

So, sure, disparage soccer all you like, but at least try and base your arguments in some kind of reality, chaps...

*Sure, it's only the Confederations Cup and scarcely as memorable a triumph as, to pluck a random game from history, the Americans' victory against England in the 1950 World Cup finals... Still, not chopped liver either.

[Hat-tip: Matt Yglesias, via Twitter. Follow my Twitter feed here.]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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