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The Hooligan and the Underdog

Jun 25, 2010 • Karen

I'm going to write a bit about soccer today. But first, some football context. Bear with me.

Having grown up in Minnesota, I'm a recovering (always recovering) Vikings fan. The Vikings are perpetual heartbreakers and heart attack givers. Even from the days of Bud Grant and "Two-Minute Tommy", you could never count the Vikings out. Fourth quarter, even two minutes left—it didn't matter how much the other side led by. The Vikings were the king of last-minute rallies. The Vikings are explosive—and, appropriately, inconsistent. My time as a Vikings fan was spent watching them win against far better rated teams—and lose to teams they ought to have blown out of the water. They'd spend most of the season playing like Super Bowl champions, then lose ignominiously in the playoffs. My team has only been to the Super Bowl once, and has never won it. Vikings fans take nothing for granted—we've seen too many impossible wins and aneurysm-inducing losses.

The problem with soccer for many people, I think, isn't really that it's so low scoring (give each goal a touchdown's worth of points and it's comparable with American football). It's that as the game goes on, often the players and the match as a whole give off an air of inevitability—it's assumed that the team that's ahead will win the match, or that both teams will let things drag to a draw. Of course it's boring when teams don't fight and the announcers take things for granted!*

Which is why the US-Slovakia game, and later the US-Algeria game, were SO great, and SO American. Everyone thought we were goners when Slovakia was up 2-0 at half. Two goals is considered a commanding lead in this bloody sport! Fortunately, our team was made of Americans who didn't know better, so they not only went on to tie 2-2, they would have had a third goal and won the damn game if it weren't for a terrible call.

And the US-Algeria game: what a Hollywood script match! Taking more risks, hitting more and more shots as the game went on in a passionate, full-hearted, grit-in-your-teeth effort to get the ball over the damn line and stay in South Africa. I've seen many a "hurry-up" football game, carefully managing the clock and racing against time. I'd never seen real, serious "hurry-up" soccer before. The New York Times declared that the second half was more like a track-and-field meet than a soccer game, with the US offense constantly sprinting toward the Algerian side as fast as they could, Tim Howard hurling the ball well past midfield to Altidore's running feet. (The soccer version of a Hail Mary?) How many hundreds or thousands of Americans who'd never even watched a soccer match before ignored their work, clenched their teeth, begged for a goal, and hollered like madmen we when finally got it in stoppage time? All this for a "boring" 1-0 point difference? We love the team representing us. We LOVE this kind of game.

Soccer can become the kind of game that Americans love. Not if we try to play like Brazilians, or like Germans, or like any other powerhouse team style. We have to make the game our own. Arguably, at this World Cup, the US side is doing just that.

* This is becoming less true worldwide. The gap is closing between the traditional powerhouses and smaller teams. New Zealand was thought to be one of the worst teams in the World Cup; in fact, they went undefeated. Slovakia killed Italy; Mexico dominated France; both those teams from last year's World Cup final are going home early. There are no kings in soccer anymore: it's now conceivable that any team can beat any other team on a given day. The US, with its sports culture full of teams like the Vikings and deep-seated love of the underdog, just tends to believe that fact more readily than most.