As always happens close to the World Cup, soccer people in Canada or the US tend to get asked questions about the sport. Some are specifically related to rules, players, how the knockout stages work, if there's still a golden goal, what is MLS, etc. etc. These questions are fun to answer because they force you to look twice at aspects of the game you'd normally take for granted—there's nothing more challenging than trying to explain how the offside rule works to someone over the phone.
Then there are the questions that really bother me. Like, "Why does the world think this sport is so great? What makes it different than hockey or basketball?" I tend to get asked these questions around my fourth or fifth bottle of Labatt 50, and unlike a certain bloated atheistic Englishman in America who writes some interesting book reviews from time to time, I get less articulate under the influence, not more.
So what usually happens is I choke out things like, "soccer is a blank slate," it is "instantly accessible," that it's the sort of sport where Ives Galarcep's opinions are about as legitimate as the taxi driver who says he knows why Didier Drogba's injury could be a blessing in disguise for the Ivory Coast. But isn't that just as true for hockey or basketball they tell me? All sports are based on a foundation of idle speculation, as Richard Ford once put it.
Then I talk about because it's a global game, it allows for national variation, and therefore is more expressive than other sports. What about baseball? is the response. It's got Japanese, Cuban, Puerto Rican and American variations. And hockey has Scandanavian, Canadian, Slavic and American strains.
Well, it's the passion of the supporters. But then how is that passion any different from the deafening noise at the Bell Centre when the Montreal Canadiens play? And what's so noble about that? Isn't soccer just a cipher for intense European and South American regionalism?
Maybe it's the intense skill and marvel of the players. Cruyff, Maradona, Mattheus Sindelar. So what? Gretzky, Michael Jordan, even Phil Taylor are capable of giving us moments of sublime grace. Athleticism and beauty isn't exclusive to football.
After this, what are you stuck with? Quoting Hugo Sanchez's store-bought soccer-as-religion shtick? Paraphrasing Blanchflower's "the game is about glory?" Reading aloud from Eduardo Galeano, or finding Jorge Valdano interviews on YouTube?
Maybe beyond the orgiastic Tifos, the street parties, the flags, the hyperbolic celebrity and fame of soccer's elite, at it's core is a conventional sport that probably got popular because it's so damn easy to set up and play. I spoke with someone yesterday about why Adidas comes out with a new ball every World Cup, and I said it's because there's only so much sports equipment people can market to soccer players. Boots, balls, and shin-pads when it comes down to it. And you don't even need two out of those three to have a proper game.
And despite having to strain to explain the offside rule, once you get it, it's gotten. There's a reason no one wants to tinker much with the rules of a game that has worked marvelously for the last century. We just want the simplest game. Soccer provides it. It's nice reading Jonathan Wilson and convincing yourself you're watching an infinitely complex set of latices and movements all controlled and coordinated by the Chief Programmer, the Manager, but really, it's a very well organized instance of twenty-two men or women kicking a ball around for ninety minutes at the end of which Germany wins.
Do we really need soccer to be "special?" I've given up on that.