Fans like soccer (football) the way it is

The most controversial column I’ve ever written (yes, even more controversial than anything I’ve written on Hope Solo or the U.S. women’s labor dispute) was many years ago, when I took Manchester United to task for coming to the USA and playing a bunch of non-MLS teams. That’s standard practice today, but in those days, European powers would routinely play friendlies against the locals. Case in point: In 2001, the MetroStars beat a recently crowned European champion Bayern Munich side that was “tired from traveling and celebrating,” as Alex Yannis put it in The New York Times.

So in 2003, I was a little miffed that Man U was coming here — to play Club America, among others. I called them rude names. (Including, ironically given the Solo situation, “cowards.”)

The reaction was amusing. In those pre-Twitter days, the only real outlet for reader response was my email address, which was posted on the story. For the next few days, I would read scores of witty retorts in the morning. Then a bunch of profane nonsense in the afternoon. That’s because the actual English fans had a sense of humor about it. The American Man U fans did not.

Today, I wrote the second most controversial column I’ve ever written. I suggested it was too easy to bunker and counter in modern soccer, and I gave a few ideas for changing things up.

Now that I’ve applied ointment to all the burn wounds from a day’s worth of flaming, I can say this: Clearly, fans are content with the game the way it is now.

Mostly. Some people agreed with the idea of having more refs. Some even made a reasonable addendum: Get those extra refs on the field and then enforce the Laws as written. That, they say, will cut down on the negativity. Maybe so.

Some of the criticism was the usual “American idiot” stuff. But here’s the funny thing — you know all those Americanizations that the NASL tried (which, I said quite clearly, failed)? Go back and look at the history, and you’ll see it was the Englishmen pushing those things. Sometimes with FIFA’s blessing, sometimes not.

And there’s only so long I can apologize for the fact that the game’s called “soccer” here. In England, when “football” split into association football and Rugby football, association football was more popular, and so it won the name. American exceptionalism of the early 20th century led gridiron football to be more popular than soccer here, so the pointyball got the name. I have no earthly idea how “football” in Australia came to mean a frenetic 36-man scramble for a ball on a giant oval, so I’ll let that be.

But for most of today’s critics, the point is well-taken. Clashing styles is part of the game, and we don’t need drastic changes.

That’s great. I’m not wedded to those solutions, though the “more eyes on the field” idea is neither unique nor outlandish. I’m glad we had the discussion. Maybe the next time someone in the media complains about the entertainment value of a game, we can all point him to today’s comments and Tweets.

So is it safe for me to go back on Twitter yet?

 

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