Friday, June 10, 2005

Why soccer isn't popular in the US

Given the way it's played and the way it's governed, soccer is never going to achieve the popularity in the US that approaches 1/10th of its popularity in rest of the world.

I occasionally watch soccer, especially the US international games and some of the major competitions like UEFA Cup, Champions League and World Cup, so I'm not a soccerphobic. But there are a bevy of reasons that soccer will not obtain high popularity aside from the overly high incidence of 0-0 draws and the fact that 3-0 is a rout.

First, referee incompetence. Three words: Italy-South Korea. Check out the round of 16 game from the 2002 World Cup -- and mind you these are the best refs in the world who are that poor! This is not isolated: soccer ref'ing makes Big Ten football and the NBA look well-controlled.

Second, the horrible ends. No game where teams can play for 120, with the last 75 minutes nearly non-stop, should ever come down to something as relatively easy as penalty kicks.

Third, the draws. So many draws, so little time. In Italy this season, the third-place team won only 18 of 38 matches and tied another 18!

Fourth, the fakery. The players too often flop, grab their shins or ankles, whinge and bawl, and either (1) pop up running at full speed immediately after the ref signals a free kick, yellow card or penalty, or (2) pop up 30 seconds later if he doesn't.

Finally, the dopey rules. In Europe, the club teams like Manchester United play in as many as four competitions simultaneously from August to May: the national league (like the English Premier League), the national cup tournament (in England, the Carling Cup), the national soccer federation's cup tournament (the FA Cup), and one of the Euro-elite leagues where the best teams of the preceding season from throughout Europe play each other, namely the Champions' League and the UEFA Cup.

As noted in the article I linked above, the Champions' League is the big prize, and this year Liverpool won in dramatic fashion. Normally, the defending champ has an automatic bid to the group stages of the Champions Cup. That's important because there are three rounds of qualifying stages before the group stages and those rounds are on Wednesdays during the national league's regular soccer season (they play Sundays or Saturdays) so a long-term bye into the group stages is a big plus that helps save the players' legs.

This year, Liverpool finished 5th in the English Premier League and the top four teams go to the Champions League. UEFA rules say only four teams from any country can play in the Champions League, but the English Football Ass'n refused to replace the 4th-place team with Liverpool and lobbied for a fifth berth. Soccer bigwigs throughout Europe lobbied for Liverpool's inclusion despite the four-team maximum rule, which ultimately applies only to England, Spain and Italy because they have the best national soccer leagues based upon UEFA's various qualification formulae (Germany gets three teams, France three, Scotland two, etc., and all at different stages).

UEFA made its decision today on Liverpool's status -- it's a bastard child. Instead of getting a place in the group stage like every other champion before it, it has to qualify from qualifying stage 1: the longest, most tiring and most difficult road to the group stages. Even the fourth-place team in the English Premier League, Everton, doesn't have to do that. In essence, a backhanded reward for Liverpool proving itself the best team among the best teams in Europe.

Stupid rules, dopey concepts, bad management. Won't work in the US.

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