Why I’d Be Rooting for Portugal (if I cared, that is)
--by Scott Plez
Here’s the truth that I should state right up front: I hate soccer. Always have and probably always will. On the day that the U.S. was playing Ghana in both teams’ first game in the group stage of the World Cup, I said to a soccer-loving friend of mine that I wouldn’t be watching. Why? Because, I said, if soccer was a sport I could bring myself to care about, a U.S. vs. Ghana game wouldn’t be considered a contest at all. In any sport that I could respect, the U.S. would always be a big-time favorite against a country like Ghana, but soccer’s not like that. It’s a game where we have to sweat games against places like Costa Rica and Honduras. Any sport like that wasn’t worth watching, I said, and he took that reason as some sort of flag-waving, America-first comment, but really, I didn't mean it that way at all. In fact, I routinely root for "the other team" against the U.S. in lots of team sports precisely because I love the story of the underdog beating the behemoth. We’re all pretty much suckers for scrappy underdogs that beat the arrogant team that comes in expecting to win, aren’t we?
Bear with me now for an instructive little detour back to the more familiar world of football—American football, that is. I don’t follow the pros much, but I sure do love some college ball, and I'm a pretty obsessive Auburn fan. (War Eagle!) And in case you don’t know much about the Auburn vs. Alabama rivalry in the annual Iron Bowl game, let me give you a quick primer on the subject. Most Auburn fans actually kind of love being in second place in the state behind the University of Alabama because that means when we beat the big guys from Tuscaloosa, the win is even sweeter. When they beat us, they usually just breathe a sigh of relief. When we beat them, it's most often a howl of jubilation. And yes, I know that Auburn is itself a football powerhouse compared to most teams, but the only team we truly care about beating every year is Bama, the true Gargantua of college football.
All of the other games can be cancelled for all I care as long as we can play that one. And if we win only three Iron Bowls every decade, I'm ok with that. I DON'T want to be Bama. I'd rather lose ten rivalry games in a row than become Bama. And most Auburn fans--whether they would admit it or not—prefer for us to be the underdog who beats Bama than to be SEC champs or even national champs. I think it would be harder to find a fan base less upset about losing the national championship game than Auburn fans were when the Tigers lost to the Seminoles of Florida State back in early January. Why? Because we’d not only already beaten Bama, but we’d beaten them in just about the most devastating way possible when Chris Davis famously ran an attempted last-second field goal back 109 yards. They had a better team than Auburn. They had a Heisman trophy candidate at quarterback. They had been the favorites for the national championship all year and ranked number one for much of the season. But we won that game. And in doing so, we took away what Bama fans think of as almost a birthright: the championship of the state of Alabama.
Bottom line: Winning is sweetest when it’s unexpected. Tyson beating Buster Douglas would barely be a footnote in the history of boxing now. But Douglas beating Tyson? That’s a story.
Anyway, that's my long way of explaining that I do not relish being in the overdog position. In fact, I would rather be a fan of the underdog, and I don’t think I’m all that unusual in that. So the reason I don't like soccer has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t get to wear my American flag t-shirt and put my number one finger in the air as they win game after game. I would not suddenly become a big fan if we became a soccer power. That ain't it. I'm not that kind of fan. In 2012, Auburn went 3-9 and lost every SEC game. Didn’t matter to me. I would still have put twenty bucks on the Tigers come Iron Bowl day, if anyone had been willing to take that action.
Here's what I meant:
For the last 30 years or so, we have been putting one heck of a lot of resources into becoming an international soccer power, right? Youth leagues and Olympic development squads and all that have been trying to develop talent here. And it's become a very popular sport among young people. And we really do try. So with all of the money and all of the millions of hours we have collectively been spending on the sport, an industrialized power like the United States should have be able to become pretty darn great at this game in thirty years of trying. And we have, kind of, but we really should have been able to do better than we have. Remember, we put people on the moon less than ten years after saying we would. We should be able to become a world power in any team sport we decide to.
And like I said, we kind of are. I mean, we did qualify for the 2014 World Cup tournament, which is a big accomplishment in soccer, no doubt about it. Every four years, there are over 200 teams trying to qualify for 32 spots in the World Cup. Each team that gets there has to win or at least do very well in their particular confederation. Ours is called CONCACAF (not exactly the most euphonious of names), and our confederation gets three or four representatives in the World Cup. With 41 members in CONCACAF, just getting to the World Cup tournament is a big deal.
But really, why should it ever be a question of whether we will qualify for this tournament? We will have to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in basketball, too, by playing in a pre-Olympic tournament in our region, but can you imagine we will have any trouble getting there? You think there’s any chance we won’t qualify for the next World Baseball Classic? We won’t always win it, but there’s just no doubt we’ll get in. But in soccer, just qualifying for the world championship tournament is a big deal. It’s actually in doubt whether we’ll get in against competition from the likes of Aruba and Grenada.
To me—and I’m absolutely certain that soccer fans would disagree 100%—the fact that a superpower like the United States has to sweat qualifying for an international competition in ANY team sport suggests not that something's wrong with us or that we lack commitment to the sport, but that something's wrong with the sport itself. What kind of randomness is going on in that sport when we can't at least expect to qualify for the world championship tournament? I don't mean we should always be expected to win it, but shouldn’t we at least feel assured that we could qualify for the event? And when we get to the opening round of that event, I do hope we can expect to get by Luxembourg, should they be unlucky enough to draw the mighty United States of America.
Imagine if we were worried about whether we could beat Suriname so that we could guarantee a spot in the world basketball championship. Or if we got by Suriname to win our way into the tournament, only to find ourselves up against the formidable foe of Uzebekistan, who comes into the game a ten-point favorite. Never gonna happen. We may not always win the gold, but we're going to be a world power in basketball no matter how low we go in the sport. We used to routinely win the gold with a bunch of college players who got pulled together into a team only a few weeks before the Olympics. After we started using NBA players, we starting thinking—and rightly so—that we would probably never “lose” the gold, as if it was assumed to be ours. But then, when we ONLY got a bronze in the 2004 Athens Olympics in basketball, we went nuts and said never again. We got Coach K. in there and have won gold at both Olympics since then. Now I suppose we’re back to assuming that gold medal belongs to us, and that’s why I always root for Nigeria or Singapore to shock the hell out of Lebron and company.
A small country beating us in a team sport should be a shocker. I may sound like a little culturally insensitive for saying so, but yes, it should be a big story when we can't dispatch with Guatemala in any team sport. But I base that statement on arithmetic, not on cultural supremacy. We have over 300 million people living here compared to about fifteen million in Guatemala. And our GDP is roughly 1000 times larger. Which country do you think has a better chance of producing a good team in any sport it cares about? But I looked it up. Back on June 12 of 2012, Guatemala darn near beat us in a tie game that ended 1-1. Imagine that.
And in any other sport, I would wish they had beaten the U.S., because that should be a great story. But it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal in soccer because the scoring is so random that, in any given game, you might as well not call any team a favorite. Now, I'm sure this is not true when you talk about teams at different levels of competition. The United States national team is going to beat the best high school team in the country by a score of about 50-0. I get that. But at the same level of competition, any given game might as well be flipping coins.
Now, baseball can be that way, too, in any given game, but that's why they play 162 games in a season and seven game series in the post-season. The New York Yankees are NEVER going to lose to a local American Legion team, and they'd probably only lose about one out of fifteen or twenty to a good college team, but they are only going to win maybe six times out of ten against the last-place team in the American League East. But when you play that team nineteen times in a year, the odds start to be stacked a little bit in favor of the slightly better team.
But World Cup soccer, which seems at least as random and chaotic as baseball, isn't played in series. They play one game to decide who's better: the USA or Ghana. After a three-game round robin group round, the top 16 teams out of 32 are put into one-game knockout rounds.
Golf can also be kind of chaotic on any given stroke or hole. You get a good bounce here or an unlucky gust of wind here and there, and on any given stroke, you and I might just have a chance at hitting a better shot or making a better putt than Tiger Woods. But that’s why you play eighteen holes, not just one. And in a big tournament, you do that for four days in a row. So at the end of that time, after 72 holes and about 280 strokes for the top players, it's highly unlikely that anyone but the best golfers in the tournament are going to be at the top of the leaderboard.
Not so with World Cup soccer. I didn't watch the game against Ghana, but I saw the next day that the U.S. won on one of those corner-kick-and-header plays very late in the game. So I guess with that header, we proved we're better than Ghana. But if that shot had instead hit the post, it would have been a tie. I know a game in any sport can be decided on a narrow margins like that—for example, in the amazing 109 yard botched-field-goal-gets-run-back play I mentioned above—but in sports that I care most about, those moment are special precisely because they are not the routine thing. Most football games are won by a couple of touchdowns, and you usually much know who's going to win by halftime—and often before the kickoff even. I mean, Appalachian St. is just not going to beat Michigan very often. You can feel pretty safe penciling in a W for the Wolverines when they take on any Southern Conference team. Hell, you could just risk it and use a pen. And that's how it should be. It's the fact that most outcomes are expected and predictable that makes a dramatic outcome dramatic. If they're all dramatic, to me, that's not drama, that's chaos.
That's why, if soccer were a sport I could care about, the United States would have been expected to walk all over Ghana. And that's why, if it were a game I cared enough about to watch, I'd be rooting for Portugal in the upcoming match.
But I don’t. So for now I say go Team America! Win enough to make me respect soccer, and maybe I’ll care enough to root for the other team.
Scott Plez (rhymes with hot fez) is a retired motocross champion who is perhaps most well-known for issuing an open challenge to Gene Simmons for a million-dollar skins game of miniature golf. In his free time, Plez engages in high-risk ukulele stunts and reads Archie comics. His goal in Plez-Splanations is to inspire others to speak freely and think even more so. Plez's greatest disappointment in life is that he was not chosen as Malcolm Young's replacement in AC/DC, a move the band must now recognize is the greatest tactical error in their 40-plus year career. War Eagle!