Why Americans Don’t Embrace Soccer

[ For a more positive look at the sport of soccer, and why it is the best sport in the world, please refer to my other recent article on the subject: “Why Soccer? -And How Soccer is Like Boxing- A Letter to American Sports Fans” ]

The special Copa America Centenario tournament that was held in the United States this summer has given me a great jumping off point for an article that I have been wanting to write. Brazil were eliminated from the tournament by a single goal that one of their Peruvian opponents scored by intentionally slapping the ball into the net with his hand. In other words, the Peruvian player did not actually score a legitimate goal, instead he committed a major infraction of the rules, but the game officials awarded the goal anyway, Peru moved on to the next round, and Brazil (who would have moved on instead of Peru if not for that single goal) were eliminated from the tournament. At the highest level of soccer, whether it is with professional clubs or national teams, events like this are so common that they are barely even a scandal.

That is a huge problem when it comes to winning the hearts of American sports fans.

Soccer at the highest level is a sport where, in practice, a single goal often determines which team wins and which team loses, and where a single goal is often either wrongly awarded or wrongly denied by the officials controlling the game. To compare this to basketball, for instance, a similar situation would be if it was not unusual for the referee in a basketball game to ‘mistakenly’ award 40 extra points to one team or the other during the game. A problem, no?

A typical American sports fan would think it was a problem, but for many soccer fans around the world this situation is not even considered undesirable. In Argentina, for example, their greatest soccer hero, Diego Maradona, scored a legendary and much beloved goal in the 1986 World Cup by punching the ball with his fist into the goal net in such a way that what he did was screened from the referee’s vision. That goal is admittedly infamous in some circles, but also much celebrated by soccer fans in Argentina and around the world. To a certain kind of soccer fan, a breed found all over the world (but not particularly in the U.S.), the outrage and drama of cheating during the game, and incorrect decisions from the officials, are among soccer’s most desirable qualities as a spectacle. The fact that it may not have been a fair contest or a legitimate result, the feeling goes, only adds to the overall drama of the event.

Outcomes at the highest levels of soccer are intrinsically unfair. They aren’t unfair in every game, but they are unfair often enough that soccer’s legitimacy as a fair contest, to determine which team is superior within the rules of the game on the given day, is questionable at best.

Traditional American sports are not this way. In baseball, with very few exceptions, the team that wins is the team that was the best at playing baseball on the day. The same is equally true of (American) football and basketball. In all of these sports it is unusual for the outcome of the competition to depend on a referee decision, or even a series of referee decisions. And, in the rare cases when they do so, the referee decisions are almost never wrong. Not so with soccer.

It gets worse than that, though. In the case of a goal like the one famously scored by Maradona, it was clear that the referee could not actually have seen what really happened, but at the highest levels of soccer, major erroneous decisions by the officials often take an unfathomable form, such that they could be described as “mysterious decisions”. If you read press from any country where soccer is the top professional sport you will see match reports that frequently describe the referee as “having a howler”, making a “shocking” decision, or some equivalent verbiage in whatever the local idiom happens to be. [ Sometimes it is not the referee, it is the linesman (the officials who run up and down the line on each side) who is in error, but I will often just say referee in this article for the sake of simplicity. ] The problem with referees frequently having “howlers” and making “shocking” decisions is that soccer is a sport in which matches are easily fixed by referees, and in which actual fixing of matches has been uncovered in various scandals throughout the sport’s history.

Soccer matches at the highest level, all over the world, have frequently been fixed. This is the dark secret that most soccer fans around the world do not want to hear about, that most soccer professionals refuse to admit publicly, and that most journalists and media in the sport constantly feign ignorance of. If you read a book like David Goldblatt’s exhaustive world soccer history, The Ball is Round, you discover that in most every era, in most every part of the world where professional soccer has been played, there have been match fixing scandals.

The largest recent match fixing scandal at the top level of the game in Europe occurred in Italy about ten years ago and was popularly referred to as ‘Calciopoli’. It was found, through wiretaps, that some team owners were colluding with the head of the match officials to pick and choose which referees would be assigned to which games. Their goal was to have their team’s matches refereed by officials whom they controlled or had influence over. This scandal saw three famous international teams, including Juventus which is among the most wealthy and successful soccer teams in history, relegated to their league’s second division as punishment for their actions.

Football journalists and media of course reported on the Calciopoli story, but were also quick to sweep it under the rug. Football professionals never admitted that what had happened in Italy was a major problem, and it resulted in no significant change to the status quo of the professional game in Europe.

Match fixing scandals like ‘Calciopoli’ have happened all over the world, throughout the 20th Century and 21st Century, and the organizers of the sport have done little or nothing to prevent match fixing from happening again. Typically, when match fixing has been uncovered, it has been when independent law enforcement agencies investigate the sport of soccer for unrelated reasons such as tax evasion. This was how the ‘Calciopoli’ match fixing in Italy was uncovered; Italian prosecutors were investigating an Italian football player agency for financial transgressions and coincidentally the wiretaps set up by their investigation happened to expose pervasive match fixing in the top Italian professional league. The controlling institutions and organizations within the sport of soccer have rarely uncovered or exposed any match fixing on their own. One of the few examples I can think of where they did was the Olympique Marseilles match fixing scandal of the 1990s, in which the head football coach (Boro Primorac) of the team Valenciennes exposed match fixing that had been reported to him by his players… and was subsequently blacklisted for life from French football.

The bigger a fan you are of the sport, the more you learn the history, the longer you follow it and the more you pay attention, the more stories like this you find. For example, this one that I came across the other day: 1984 UEFA Cup Bribery Scandal. Or this: 2005 Match Fixing Scandal in Brazil.

So in a sport where match fixing has long been (and continues to be) a major problem, what has been done to combat it? The sad answer is that in soccer, for decades, rather than combating match fixing, everything possible has been done to enable and encourage it.

For example, any form of video review/replay to help officials in games make correct decisions has for decades been completely banned by FIFA, the sport’s powerful global governing organization. Similarly, soccer matches under the auspices of FIFA have no official clock or time keeper, rather the referee arbitrarily ends the game sometime after 90 minutes, whenever he/she feels like it is an appropriate time. [ Famously in England, the historically richest and most popular team was until a few years ago often given “Fergie time” by referees, named in honor of their internationally famous, influential, rich, and well-connected head coach. This meant that when the game was tied or they were behind they were usually given an unusually long amount of time to play on and try to pull the game back, and for some reason were frequently and often controversially able to do so in those few extra minutes at the end. By contrast, if they were winning the game but the other team was coming on strong, the referee would commonly apply “Fergie time” to end the match much more quickly than would normally be expected. ]

In other words, two obvious things that would tend to prevent match fixing, video review and an official game clock — two things that have been long ago embraced by virtually every other professional sport — have been not only discouraged by FIFA, but in fact specifically disallowed.

Imagine, if you will, that at the Olympics, when the sprinters run the 100m dash, the winner of the race is decided by a “track master” who stands at the finish line and makes a judgment call. The correctness of his judgment is often called into question, as who was in front of who is often too difficult to see, and sometimes a runner like Usain Bolt will be one or two strides ahead of all the other runners when he crosses the line, yet not be declared the victor of the race according to the “track master”. Of course, the track and field media, a multi-billion dollar international business, will comment about how unfortunate it is that when the Usain Bolt was crossing the finish line the “track master” accidentally sneezed, or blinked, and was ‘unable’ to see the correct winner. “These things happen, after all, and it’s all part of the drama that makes running races exciting, isn’t it?” Now also imagine that all track and field events in the world are controlled by a powerful international organization, and that organization has decared a total ban on the use of any technology that could be used to objectively determine the winner of the race. The “track master” is not even allowed to look, for example, at the huge video monitor in the stadiums at big events which immediately replay the finish and show which racer really won — but, his word on the winners and losers is final.

…It all sounds pretty terrible, but that is more or less the exact situation in top level soccer and has been for decades.

It’s worth noting at this point that, in the past year, many of the top executives in soccer’s overarching international governing organization, FIFA, have been indicted and/or gone to jail on corruption charges based on FBI investigations into the organization’s financial irregularities. It’s also worth pointing out that gambling on soccer matches is a global industry whose size adds up to MANY billions of dollars.

How easy is it to fix a soccer match? For the referee it is very easy, because he can easily shape the match and has no personal stake in its outcome. So if you can control the referee, you can control the outcome of the match. By contrast, fixing a match by controlling players is very hard (because one player generally isn’t enough, the players have a vested interest in the outcome of the match and the perception of their performance, players at the top level already have more money than they know what to do with and are therefore difficult and expensive to bribe, and it takes a lot of effort and coordination for players to control the outcome of a match). At the top level of the game the referee is also the most vulnerable link in the football chain: invariably the lowest paid (by an order of magnitude) direct participant in the competition.

So introducing things like video review (of some form) and an official match clock to the sport would go an enormous way towards stamping out corruption by making it much more difficult for referees to fix matches. And many in the sport have begged for these changes (especially video review) for decades, but the sport’s governing body has done everything possible to prevent them.

In the 1984-85 season, Italy’s top professional league tried a new system in which referees were assigned to matches randomly from a referees pool, rather than being assigned by a special referees committee. Surprisingly to everyone involved, the major clubs of Italy underachieved that season, and lowly Hellas Verona, who had never before come close to winning any major trophy at all, stormed through to the league title. Following these unexpected results, the system of random referee draws was scrapped at the end of that season, and the most well connected Italian teams, such as Juventus, once again dominated the following year (and every year thereafter).

Let’s circle back to where American sports fans fit into all this: American sports fans traditionally have a very low tolerance for corruption in their sports. This is a country where the Chicago ‘Black Sox’ match fixing scandal of the early 1920s, in which players were paid by gamblers to fix the baseball World Series, is still a part of common knowledge and popular culture. The players involved, including one of the greatest players to ever play the game, were banned from the sport for life. This is a country in which another of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game, Pete Rose, was banned for life for betting on his team to win. [ There has never been any public allegation that Rose was fixing matches, and never any evidence that he was betting against his team, only that he placed many bets on his team to win their games (and on other sports games that he had no influence over). And he was banned for life from the sport and has never been inducted into the hall of fame, even though he is the baseball equivalent of, say, George Best or Franz Beckenbauer (soccer legends). ] More recently, this is the country where Lance Armstrong in a matter of weeks went from being one of our most celebrated icons to being seen as practically a social pariah, after it was conclusively exposed that he used doping to succeed (in a sport where virtually all top competitors for the past twenty years have used doping).

America is also a country in which sports gambling is illegal in most places. Stop and think about that. Sports gambling companies are one of the major sponsors and advertisers in top level soccer all around the world, but in most parts of America their enterprise is illegal.

So how is a professional sport going to become deeply rooted here when it has a rich history of match fixing, when the outcome of matches is often directly decided by the decisions of the referee, and when the major decisions of referees are often wrong?

It’s not only corruption that American fans have a problem with; Americans have an idealistic mentality about sports in general. Most Americans, honestly in their hearts, would not want to win in a sports competition unless they were legitimately the best competitor on the day. Americans would never celebrate winning in the way that Diego Maradona did in 1986, with a goal produced from a blatant cheat — to do so would run completely against the grain of the national psyche. An American athlete who did that, and celebrated ecstatically, and called their cheat “the hand of God”, would be a pariah here.

Part of the American idealism about sports arises from the idea that sports can be better than life. That life itself is not fair, not just, but that within life we can create games that are. Within the context of baseball, or basketball, or American football, or track and field, the best man (or men, or women) does win. Life isn’t that way, life isn’t reducible enough to be that way, there is no way to concretely determine who is or is not the best. But in a sport or a game, within a finite set of rules, in a finite space, according to the parameters and assumptions that are clearly expressed and understood, a best competitor can be determined. In the 100m dash there is one person who is the fastest. Everyone starts on the same line, everyone starts at same signal, everyone races on the same track, according to the same rules, and the best racer wins. To the American sports fan that is in essence how every sporting competition should be.

So even if we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that match fixing is not a serious issue in the sport of soccer, if the arbitrariness and correctness of match outcomes is just as bad as if the matches had been fixed, the result is nearly the same from the perspective of winning the hearts of American sports fans.

This is a problem that lies under the surface, and doesn’t ever rear its head. It isn’t what die hard American soccer fans dislike about soccer, it is what has tended to prevent us from having die hard American soccer fans at all. Or at least it is a significant, and rarely mentioned, part of the problem.

I am an American who loves soccer. I have played the game since I was a young child, and still play it often. And it was literally my dream from the time I was a child to be able to watch top professional soccer matches on tv. That dream became a reality for me ten years ago. I watch a lot of soccer, and love watching it. Yet even I, who am as predisposed in favor of the sport as a person can probably be, have often found myself tempted to quit it. To quit watching, that is, not to quit playing. If the match winners and losers are decided by the referee, then what’s the point? If the team that plays the best on the day doesn’t win, at least ALMOST every single time, then how is it even a legitimate competition?

And if matches can easily be fixed, and not much is being done to prevent them from being fixed, and if it seems like when I watch them that they are fixed, well then — the sport can go to hell.

That’s how I feel, as an American. And I think it is the key to the enigma of why professional soccer has never really been embraced by American sports fans.