Wissot: The grace and athleticism of soccer is underappreciated in the United States (column) | VailDaily.com

Wissot: The grace and athleticism of soccer is underappreciated in the United States (column)

Jay Wissot
Valley Voices

I'm not a big soccer fan except for a month every four years when teams from all over the world gather in one country, as they are now in Russia, to determine who is the best soccer team in the world. It's called the World Cup, and it is truly the Super Bowl of soccer.

There's something about World Cup that excites me. It may be the pageantry of the fans decked out in their nation's colors or the passion shown by the people in the stands at each match. It is not just a game for them. Winning or losing is a matter of life and death. Their country's honor and status among the other nations in the world is at stake.

I've often wondered why soccer hasn't caught on in this country. Fan interest pales in comparison to the big four of team sports here: football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

("Why do Americans hate soccer while the rest of the world loves football?" John Francis, Sunbury News, July 10, 2017).

I think our lack of interest has less to do with how good the soccer talent is and more to do with cultural differences separating us from the rest of the world. Soccer is a game that requires patience on the part of players and fans. Goals are rare, with games often ending with 1-0 or 2-1 scores. It is not unusual for games to be scoreless at the end of 90 minutes of regulation time, with the winning goal decided in overtime periods (15 minutes each) or, as a last resort, penalty kicks in championship matches such as the World Cup.

Knowledgeable fans worldwide view soccer as a complex cerebral chess match, with one lethal move or fatal mistake resulting in checkmate. We Americans prefer our sports to resemble a high-octane video game, showcasing violence and mayhem. Slam-dunks on the court, body slams on the ice, sacks on the field are what rev us up. Soccer players are, for the most part, slight of build when compared with their brethren in the other sports who are bigger, stronger and more susceptible to career-ending injuries.

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But what soccer players lack in size and strength they more than make up for in artistry, athleticism and fitness. Those qualities are present in our four more popular sports but not to the same extent. All 11 soccer players are artistic, athletic and fit. The same cannot be said of lumbering linemen in football or pudgy pitchers in baseball or gawky centers in basketball or hulking enforcers in hockey.

The feet of a soccer player are what the hands are to other athletes. They are essential to everything they do. With the exception of the goalkeeper, their hands are useless and off limits. Their heads are scoring instruments equal in importance when close to the goal with their feet.

The head of a baseball player is subject to an errant fastball, while the head of a football player is an open target for a concussive hit. Only soccer players use their feet and heads to delight their fans. They are the source of their artistry and the basis for soccer being called "the beautiful game." ("My Life and The Beautiful Game," Pele, 1977).

It is also, in my opinion, why soccer is so unappreciated in this country. Soccer fans have more in common with opera lovers and ballet devotees than they do with fans of other sports. They are there to appreciate the art of their sport, as well as the thrill of competition. Make no mistake about it: Winning rather than losing is crucial to their enjoyment. But until an outcome is determined, they are quite content to savor the grace of the game.

The World Cup final will take place in Moscow on Sunday, July 15. If you happen to watch that match, then please take time to appreciate what these incredible athlete-artists are able to do with their bodies as they fiercely fight to win.

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at jayhwissot@mac.com.