Sunday, June 4, 2017

Frank Deford Didn't Respect Soccer

Acclaimed sports writer and sports documentarian, Frank Deford, died last week at the age of 78. Interestingly, he was exquisite in his writing on sports stories and sports idols, but he wasn't delicate in stating his opinions on the sport of soccer.

In his last commentary for NPR (National Public Radio), shortly before his death, he said, "Someone had to stand up to the yakety-yak soccer cult." His opposition to soccer was crystal clear. Basically, he didn't see soccer as a sport that could stack up with the 'Big 3' (football, baseball and basketball).

His seminal writing for why soccer can't be successful in the U.S. was written for Sports Illustrated in 2001, titled, "Not Our Cup of Tea." In the book review opinion piece, Deford counters arguments made by the authors of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism. His does not hold back any punches. His basic premise is that soccer will never thrive in the U.S. because it's simply un-American.

Deford wrote, "We prefer offense in the United States. Soccer is defensive. Football added the forward pass. Basketball introduced a shot clock. We expect satisfaction in the United States. Soccer
celebrates frustration. Soccer developed outside the U.S., and unlike most everything else in the world, it lacks our influence."

He saw fundamental flaws in the game of soccer, while seeing momentum and strategy in the others. He wrote, "It is not only that soccer lacks scoring, either. It also has no small victories, no cumulative successes. Baseball teams build rallies. Football teams drive down the field, even if they have to settle for a field goal. Soccer is the coitus interruptus of sport."

Wow, if that is not the lowest blow a person can deliver on the performance of soccer as a sport, what is? Basically, he called soccer a spoiler of sports, and an unfulfilling encounter.

He makes more of his case by citing the many instances and investments made into the game, including Pelé. Surely, he would have mentioned Beckham, if the timing had warranted. He wrote, "Huge sums have been invested in a succession of professional leagues that have received inordinate amounts of Pollyanna publicity. Pelé was brought here to troop the futbol colors...If soccer had never had an opportunity here, one could argue that its time must surely come. But soccer has been jammed down our throats--and found wanting."

Deford uses, arguably, the most influential women's soccer game in history, the 1999 World Cup final, to make a point for how few highlights soccer offers. The game was decided by penalty kicks (PK) after 120 minutes of play, and drawing 0-0. The U.S. beat China on PKs in historic fashion. But, history had no relevance that day for Deford. "The 90,000 attendance is stressed. What is not dealt with is the score, of which there was none--excuse me: nil--till we got to the pinball finale. Why do you think the only image we have of that game is of Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt? Because there was nothing in the game to remember."

He goes further on to write, "So soccer has been around these colonial precincts for something like 125 years. It has had its game of the century. It has borrowed the player of the century. It has been spoon-fed the globe's biggest tournament. It has had league after league, outdoor and in, bankrolled by well-heeled angels. It is blessed with legions of ready-made fans who immigrate here and millions of suburban children who are indoctrinated from kindergarten on. Still, it never catches on."

With his rich ability for detail and story telling, it is reasonable to conclude that Deford is a quintessential American sports writer and one of the greatest U.S. sports writers of all-time. How should his views on soccer be evaluated, then?

I believe his views for soccer are equal to how a good percentage of U.S. sports fans feel about the game. What is that percentage exactly, is hard to say. But, I believe it's enough of a number to keep soccer and MLS from being mainstream along with the 'Big 3.' What is clear from what Deford was saying, is that soccer needs an Americanizing touch.

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