The making of a national pastime and adopting another

Wooden seats at Craven cottage – Fulhamfc.com

America prefers to do things a certain way, its own way.  Most times this is a desirable trait, and part of what makes Americans unique.  Other times the American way of adaptation and singular ownership can be akin to jamming a square peg in a round hole.  This sometimes detrimental characteristic surely applies to sport.

America however does take rightful ownership of one sport, at least as it’s played in its current form, a game of boys as it’s often called, steeped in the history of the country itself, as is any national pastime.

England, although similarly owning the rights at least in part to a sport proclaimed as the world sport can also make claim to having a small hand, really more like a finger or two, in the conception of America’s game.  But, as both sports are so widely varied, they have striking similarities.  Not in how the game is played on the field, but how the game is revered and understood in the countries, and in the culture.

There is no replicating the meaning of baseball to America, just as there is no re-creating the beautiful game of football to include the profound significance held by its birthing nation, or group of nations.  Both sports have their genesis, at least as they are played in their present form, in the mid 1800’s.  Of course early interpretations with sticks and balls and bags and kicking were experimented with much earlier.

Craven Cottage in 1923 – Fulhamfc.com

Both countries hold onto these sports, these traditions, these memories, these heroes, these often crumbling structures where every brick and seat have history wrought through its fibers, with such possessive fortitude that it makes participating in them as an outsider almost impossible.

Unfortunately, over the years America’s pastime has slowly faded into the background of newer sports like basketball, and most notably one sport that although called football in America goes by the same name everywhere else, except with “American” plopped in front to decipher it from the game they created.  America has decided among many other changes to take the game of world football by a different name, which given language differences and an already popular sport of the same name, makes sense.

Same gable at Craven Cottage current day – Fulhamfc.com

Even with as much passion as America has for the simplicity of a game played with a wooden stick and a hardball, it slowly tears down the bricks and facades of this national pastime, rebuilding it with the new and corporate sponsored.  While to the contrary England embraces theirs, wanting never to unnecessarily lose any piece of history, with a club like Fulham holding on with all their might to a tiny decaying ground aptly called Craven Cottage, nestled on the River Thames, leaving no room for expansion.

America has been able to hold onto Fenway and Wrigley, but there’s no telling how much longer.  I know Craven Cottage could eventually suffer the same fate as Yankee Stadium and the old Tiger stadium in Detroit, but for now it stands fairly similar to how it stood in 1923.

Putney End Craven Cottage – Fulhamfc.com

The national pastime will never go away in the States, but as it fades the country looks to a sport from another country, not quite embracing what makes it uniquely their pastime and instead trying to do the same it’s now doing with baseball.

It’s difficult to understand why America is set on making the game its own, instead of just making it a game that America adapts to and excels at, or strives to excel at.  It’s not that the U.S. hasn’t made great strides as a relative newcomer to the sport, because they have, but it’s about the way the youth grow up in the sport, the way universities change the rules, and the way the professional ranks try to short cut the path to footballing greatness, instead of learning from how other countries lived the sport in order to grow it.

It’s one thing to birth and grow great footballers, it’s a far more difficult task to also create a world-class professional league.  Both have only been done by a few countries, and they’re all European.  The South American countries have figured out how to do the first, with much improvement required on the latter.  Although economies and the wealth of the populations have a lot to do with the latter, explaining the difficulty for those countries.

That’s why these questions are, if you will, allowed to be asked of America.  Because it’s a country of 300 million people with no shortage of infrastructure and rich and wealthy middle class citizens to support the cause.  No shortage of world-class athletes.

In fairness, it is beginning to improve.  We are starting to see some form of reverence towards the sport with a handful of European influenced stadiums and youth developmental programs.

Americans will always have a certain love and passion for the dirt and gritty brawn of baseball, and the head bashing strength of American football, and that shouldn’t be extinguished.  There are certain nuances about the game of baseball and an inherent sense of the game, the smells of leather and pine tar and freshly laid chalk that strike deep in the bones of any former player or die-hard fan that cannot be understood overnight, so why should the football of Europe be any different. We should however, as a country of sports fans, attempt to understand by opening our mind to this game and to the history of the game, a game that constantly flirts with the impossible.

It’s only a matter of time and it’s already begun happening in small instances, when the biggest and fittest and strongest of American athletes choose the game of world football, or soccer, as their pastime.  It will never replace baseball, nor should it, or American football for that matter, but it can be developed as a strong and beautiful man’s game, if the powers at be take the right steps.

It’s not right or wrong, or good or bad, but a certain aspect of the society in America has clung onto soccer, and interestingly not the same demographic or part of society necessarily as in England for example. In Great Britain the sport is considered a rough and tough man’s game, of course along with Rugby, but football with the added element of finesse and artistry to make it appeal to all types.

America’s view, in majority, not of course to soccer fans but as a whole, is that it’s a game of lesser athletes or at the very least, lesser in masculinity.  As a footballer and avid football fan, I of course, and many I know do not feel this way, but the sentiment still remains in a surprisingly high percentage of the population.  Now, some will never be won over, but part of the problem is soccer in the U.S. has been scarred by a rather unfortunate case of identity crisis.

The game is, and has for many years, been portrayed by the media and soccer elite as if it’s between two minds.  It’s often sold as being a great developer for the smaller less athletic kids to simply get in shape and be active; something safe that your kids can do after school.  Then as professional leagues grew and as World Cup teams and Olympic teams were created, there was an attempt to persuade the public that it’s a game for real athletes, for men. (This article isn’t in reference to women’s soccer in America, which on the world stage is ranked much higher)

American football fans and baseball fans took this approach almost as an assault on their game, on their passion.  Somewhere along the lines the message got lost.

Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in the history of the MLS for the San Jose Clash in 1996

In the early 90’s, as I was growing up in the game, there weren’t networks like Fox Soccer or channels that showed European football or how it was played. We relied entirely on the image and message put out there by the U.S. soccer federation and our local soccer clubs, unless we happened to be in a family or setting that sought out soccer on the European stage.

Soccer is no doubt getting stronger, and youth academies in the mold of English clubs are popping up all over, and there is a real movement, but it’s very difficult, and may take another generation to wipe out the confused and jumbled identity of soccer that was portrayed for so many years in the U.S.  America shouldn’t try to package it like baseball or American football, but simply go back to the roots of the game.

Why play college soccer without stoppage time ending the game with a buzzer, and with continuous subs and different rules altogether, essentially trying to conform to the rules and ideals of other sports that Americans already follow.  The MLS has had such a block when it comes to discussing the idea of relegation and promotion, or a season on the same yearly schedule as the rest of the world, or a single table league, and instead favoring the split up conference system employed by every other American sport.

Sheffield F.C. in England – Worlds oldest football club

Let’s learn from the people and countries that created the sport and made it what it is today, not chart our own path, at least not this once.

As a country that is just as proud of our overwhelming superiority at baseball, we should understand the sacrifices, and credence to history it takes in order reach that level of excellence.

I, as much as anyone, stand up for what this country is, and was founded on, and would like to see U.S. soccer become great, and the MLS an elite league on the world stage.  But first the game of soccer has to meld in with the ideas and theories and history of European football and stop trying to make it American.

Just make it good and the rest will follow.

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One comment

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