The world’s biggest sport

07.08.06

…but not Canada’s.

As the rest of the globe prepares for tomorrow’s World Cup final, Montreal is not entirely quiet. Flag-spottings and car-honkings are a lot more prevalent than I’d expected, especially given Italy’s presence in the big game. But soccer is still nowhere near the sport here that it is in most other places around the world.

Here’s Josh Freed’s take on the subject, from today’s Gazette (link requires subscription):

I’ve spent the last week at Italian and Portuguese cafes enjoying World Cup fever. I like the passion, the flags – even the honking car horns that go by my house until 1 a.m.

Yet soccer itself mystifies me. Like many North Americans I grew up on sports like football, basketball and hockey, filled with high scores and simple rivalries between cities – not nations.

But soccer is totally different, an often scoreless game whose blood feuds go back centuries and feel practically medieval.

Soccer also has a slow and, dare I say, dull pace which isn’t suited to many of us hyperactive North Americans. It’s like European films – where the pauses are as important as the action. In fact, it’s so low on thrills that last week, New Yorker magazine called soccer “the Canada of sports.”

So, as half the planet prepares to watch tomorrow’s World Cup final, here are some thoughts from a soccer know-nothing on why “the beautiful game” is a mysterious one to me.

To start with, North America is a goal-oriented society, literally. We like goals and points – and our sports are filled with them. A typical football score is 45-35, while basketball games often break 100. Even “boring” baseball has scoring extravaganzas of 11-8.

But in soccer your basic score is 1-0. Or even 0-0, which they craftily call “nil-nil,” obviously to disguise the fact nothing has actually happened. And we’re watching World Cup. In the regular season I hear scores are sometimes so low they give them in fractions: Denmark 1/15th, Argentina 1/37th.

There are rumours of a game where Croatia beat the Ukraine by minus 3 to minus 5.

Even when North American athletes aren’t scoring, they’re almost scoring, as hockey announcers scream: “He shoots … Ohhh! – what a save!,” every three seconds. But soccer announcers just say things like:

“Ronaldo passes to Ronaldinho … who passes back to Ronaldo … who passes back to Ronaldissimo … who passes back to the goalie … who was out having an espresso but returns to kick the ball.”

There are long four-minute stretches when even the wildest fans at my local cafe are utterly silent – though they’re not actually bored like me. They’re just tense. North American sports are about action and excitement, while soccer is about anxiety and dread.

In Montreal, it seems to be mostly about car-honking and flag-waving. But it’s nice to see at least some excitement in the air here. Isn’t it time we Canadians joined the rest of the planet and got on board? After all, it’s not even hockey season. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll even have a team good enough to participate? (I’m not holding my breath).

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