Monday, 21 January 2013

Foot. Ball. Hand. Egg.

This is one for you sports fans out there.

If I’m the sort of freak who prefers baseball to cricket (heresy in these here English parts), then you might assume I’m also the sort of freak who prefers American football to what the English call football and what Americans call “soccer”. Not so.

Let’s get the annoying business out of the way. The picture below perfectly demonstrates how I intend to refer to the two sports:

It’s handegg. Not football. Handegg. Which is not only more appropriate, it’s quite fun to say too, so I suggest you try it. And before you accuse me of rank anti-Americanism, let me spring this little surprise on you: “soccer” is possibly a better way to refer to football than…er…football.

You see, back when original football split into its constituent parts, the two different games were called “rugby football” and “association football”. Rugby football became rugby, which occasionally, even now, can be “rugger” for short. Association football skipped the step of ever being called “association”, which would have just been bizarre, but the abbreviation for association – “soccer” – remains, thanks to our American cousins. 

Of course, in a British accent, “soccer” sounds like a great spot of fun. "Fancy a bit of soccer in the park?" Great. The problem is that, in an American accent, it’s hard to say “soccer” without it sounding disparaging. Oh yeah, that game that kids and women play…saw-kerr. (Just to confuse everything, a lot of Welsh people call rugby simply “football”. I once tried to watch a fairly major soccer game in the middle of Cardiff. Not a single pub was showing it. One particularly enormous Welshman replied to my request with, “Football? Oh…you mean women’s rugby?” Suffice to say, I stopped trying.)

A Welshman in his natural habitat

Anyway, I digress. I shall stick with the word "soccer", to keep things fair and balanced. So just what is Americans’ problem with soccer? The most common complaint I hear is the lack of scoring. Second only to the concept of the “draw” or “tie”, something innately repugnant to the American psyche. Brits love a good draw/tie. It’s so much more sporting. “Jolly good show, old chap, would be a shame for there to be a loser anyway. So what if it was a dull 0-0? Scoring is vulgar anyway. Shall we go to the pub?”

As for the lack of scoring, well…sure. It can be dull, I’ll admit it. Painfully, painfully dull.

However, I’ll never accept this criticism from fans of handegg, which is, as far as I can tell, a 3-hour-long series of adverts occasionally interrupted by brief glimpses of sport. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some handegg. I wore a gold San Francisco 49ers jacket every single day of fifth grade. But seriously, people: can we just get on with it?

NINERS. We might win the Superbowl this year, you know. Oh yes.

Especially after I discovered rugby (which didn’t happen until my early twenties, to be honest), handegg seemed slow-moving and lame. I mean, rugby is basically handegg but with no pads, no stoppages, and the intensity turned up to 11. It is a phenomenal sport, and should be more popular in the US than it is (then again, when would you have the ad breaks?)

Yeah, watch that video. Handeggers are pussies. One thing handegg and rugby do have in common though, is that they are, to me, bewilderingly complicated. The first time I was forced into playing handegg, as a tiny British kid new to America, well…I’ve never been so confused in my entire life. And rugby is probably the one sport you need a good few weeks to actually teach someone properly; the number of rules is dizzying. Soccer, meanwhile, is essentially just, “Here’s a ball, get it into that goal without using your hands. GO.” The beauty of soccer is its simplicity.

For me, though, it is exactly that paucity of scoring which Americans hate that is its greatest strength. The goal is the drug I keep going back for. Yes, the goal in soccer, the goooooooooool if you will, is the Pulp-Fiction-adrenaline-needle-straight-to-the-heart that no other sport quite has. The touchdown, the home run, the game-winning drop-kick are all great in their own ways…but there is just nothing in the world like the sight of a soccer net rippling, precisely because it is so rare. If you can’t find joy in that, well, then you probably don’t have a soul. See below.

I still count this goal as one of the highlights of my life. I was in Holland during the first World Cup that I paid any attention to, in 1998, and it was impossible not to root for the Dutch, with their absurd orange jerseys and their ingenious striker Dennis Bergkamp (whose name is the only thing this commentator can say as he completely and utterly loses his shit). That goal, man. That goal. For context, it's important for Americans to understand just how big a deal the World Cup is in Holland. The country is utterly soccer mad, and yet Holland have never won the World Cup. At the time, the last team to beat them in a World Cup Final was...Argentina. 

And the last minute of a quarterfinal that had been an absurd rollercoaster of emotions already (including an Argentinian player headbutting Holland's goalkeeper in the chin), the Dutch defender Frank de Boer played an insane, perfectly weighted long ball to Bergkamp...who then did something unreal. He needed only three of the deftest, most brilliant touches you will ever see to 1. control the ball, 2. totally bamboozle the defender, and 3. slam the ball into the net. All with one foot. Out of nowhere, in the final minute, Holland had won, thanks to a moment of complete genius. I have a soft spot for the British commentary of, "Oh that's brilliant, OH THAT'S WONDERFUL," but it's the Dutch commentary that sums up exactly what was happening in my brain and the brain of every single person in Holland. I was eleven years old, and I felt like I was going insane. Wonderfully, magically insane. Who needs drugs, eh?

So, in conclusion: why do soccer fans sit through dull 0-0 draws? Because every once in a while, something magic like that happens. Or like this.

Which is like any sport, I suppose. They all have their dramatic moments. That's why we watch any sport at all: for the drama. And yet, for me, nothing will ever be quite as dramatic as the soccer goal. Call me a romantic, I guess. And I'll happily sit for 90 minutes in anticipation of one that never comes...than watch three hours of TV ads.

TOMORROW, THOUGH…A TWIST: WHY HANDEGG IS BETTER THAN SOCCER. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Stay tuned…