Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In it, but not of it

In the last two weeks, I've seen 8-10 soccer games, which is about as many as I've seen in the last two decades. Outside of North America, soccer is much easier to appreciate since it's not a niche sport for those who would like to like it. So, I've come to understand soccer, made easier by the NFL-style broadcasting where games come one after another, from 8 pm to 5 am in Korean time.

For a long time I disliked soccer, as many North Americans do, because of its fluid nature and rapid shifts in momentum and speed. These are things I don't understand well, one of the reasons I don't really like to watch hockey. But, after seeing play after play, game after game, replay after replay, I can finally understand how it's put together. I can understand both the way the games work and also the way the tournaments work, but while I understand it, I don't think I can be a soccer fan.

There are certainly soccer fans from Canada and America (to say North Americans don't like soccer is bizarre, considering about 25% of North Americans are soccer-crazed Mexicans) although it's hard to follow the game from there. I won't pretend to be a soccer fan, and while I'll be more inclined now to try and pay attention to soccer highlights in the future instead of zoning or toning out, I can't name or place many or any of its stars.

It's too bad, though, because I wish I was a soccer fan. The phenomenon of soccer is on a scale so wide that it's difficult to comprehend. Here in Seoul, something on the order of hundreds of thousands of people went out last night to watch the Korea-Nigeria game that started at 3:30 am local time, and were trudging home in the broad daylight that breaks out here at 5 am. It would be possible to think that Koreans love soccer most of all, but that's a grotesque overstatement. Koreans would come a distant third to the European and South American powers on the fan index, as passionate as they are about public gatherings, clapping and international sports that prove their worth as a race and as a country.

Like many things on a global scale or involving billions of people, soccer is popular on a scale that's difficult to comprehend. Its popularity relies in part on its popularity and also its simplicity, though only seven teams have ever won it. Being a global sport unlike any of the North American sports, it lacks the neat narrative that we enjoy in North American sports. There is really only one version of most of our sports, with the exception of football, which has three varieties albeit in a clear hierarchical order. Professional soccer is centred in Europe, but that's about it. There are many teams and leagues and players, and is universal enough to be in practice what track and field is symbolically: something that everyone does, even places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and North Korea.

The World Cup, on the other hand, does offers a very neat narrative, one that's almost too neat. Thirty-two teams fight tooth and nail for years to get here and despite the intense, almost absurdly competitive level, only one can win. That's hardly a satisfying outcome for anyone, but those who enjoy the arbitrary, high-pressure environment of three round-robin games and then as many as four single elimination games, it works.

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