During the month of September, Olympic.ca will be exploring “What makes the perfect athlete?” The goal is not to craft a definitive answer, but to acknowledge great athletes and achievements in sport – Canadian and international – throughout the month and welcome fans to discuss their favourite heroes and moments.
It was born in England, distributed via France, perfected by Brazil and is adored by the vast majority of the world.
In North America, however, football – the one that primarily uses the foot – still fights for legitimacy in some circles but that is a fight, thankfully, no longer worth having.
Take for instance my colleague Steve Boudreau’s piece this month ranking sports by athleticism. Football (soccer) failed to make the list. It’s not really Boudreau’s fault, he made an earnest effort to include international sports. However, soccer is a traditional victim of sport chauvinism in our part of the world and its exclusion from the list is a byproduct of that legacy.
Soccer’s uphill battle is an extension of the theory of American exceptionalism, resulting in a vilification of the world’s game for decades in favour of the ‘tougher’ local sports. The real crime soccer committed is that it wasn’t made in the United States or Canada.
Soccer stars like Didier Drogba are always taking off their shirts. It may have been a double secret FIFA directive in order to sell soccer’s ‘athleticism’ to an unsuspecting North American public.
Recall American sports commentator Keith Olbermann’s infamous rants during the 2014 World Cup. (The only time he and his sworn enemies on the American political right find common ground – soccer unites!)
Canadian ice hockey deity Don Cherry uses soccer references as a way to discredit European players in the National Hockey League.
Olbermann was even good enough to provide tips on how to make the global game more appealing to the United States. Because a sport universally enjoyed around the world isn’t good enough on its own merits for the “did-you-see-that-hit?” crowd, the people who too often confuse athleticism with the propensity to cause bodily harm in a group setting. Yet, somehow Jackass: The Movie was never under the sports genre at DVD stores.
Tackling in soccer is an art when done properly. A poorly-timed tackle can lead to career-threatening injuries, but it’s not as cool as elbowing someone in the face and fails to lure some hardcore ice hockey fans. Sorry.
The beautiful game doesn’t need defending, especially not its athletic aspects, which requires participants to use the entire body even if observers focus mostly on the easy-to-explain running charts. Volumes have been written, studies have been done on the physical toll soccer takes. It will never be ‘tough’ enough for some because generally soccer players aren’t trying to take an opponent’s head off with unnecessary violence on the field of play. In any case, there is plenty of enlightenment in our part of the world now to safely ignore soccer’s critics.
The game’s appeal in North America today is undeniable when looking at registration rolls. Soccer’s global superstars are highly marketable household names raking in obscene sponsorship dollars from American companies. The game hasn’t just arrived in earnest in Canada and United States over the last two decades. It has set up shop and is poised for long-term demographic domination.
Cristiano Ronaldo is taking a lot of money from American companies among others. Photo illustration by Braulio Amado; Photograph by Getty Images; published by Bloomberg Businessweek
Moreover, with the world’s wealth shifting eastward for the foreseeable future, it will be American sports courting the world, not the other way around. See NBA’s tipoff times for China dilemma, and NFL’s desperate desire for a global breakthrough to provide additional hits of reality.
Soccer doesn’t need to be ‘tough’ in the North American sense. It is an incredibly athletic sport that is bound to lure more of the best young North American athletes in search of international riches and glory. Fighting it is simply denying (because there’s no delaying) the inevitable.