Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The World Cup and the European Mindset

By Jake Novak

This is not another one of those, “give soccer a chance and watch the World Cup” essays. Hey, if you’d rather watch baseball, basketball, or paint dry, go ahead. But if you’re politically curious, you should spend a little time watching to understand the European mindset, especially when it comes to predicting how it will play a role as we face the growing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.

I like soccer, but one thing I hate is the over-exaggerated, writhing-around-in-pain, looking-like-you’re-going-to-die move all the players pull after the slightest contact. I understand players need to do whatever they can to make sure fouls are called. Lord knows, NBA players overdo it when they acrobatically fly across the floor in hopes of getting a charging foul called. But in American sports, these theatrics usually end when the ball goes back into play. There’s no sense in keeping up appearances when the game is on, right? Well, not if you’re playing soccer. The acting jobs go on and on, even if the ball is dangerously close to the goal. But just like in American sports, arguing and theatrics rarely change a referee’s mind.

The foolishness doesn’t end there. Not only does the supposedly fouled player go into hyper protest mode, but the rest of the soccer team usually joins in… all at once! Somehow, scoring a goal or preventing an opposing score suddenly becomes less important than whining. This isn’t just a bad sportsmanship; it’s a darn good way to lose. You rarely see an entire NFL team stop everything while the ball is still in play to protest a non-call. In most NFL games, players often make tackles after the whistle and scoop incomplete passes off the turf just in case they heard or saw something wrong.

But as American advertisers are painfully aware, soccer is a game with running time and no real timeouts. Taking your eye off the ball at any time is a crucial mistake, especially when the chances for rewards are so low and the possibilities for disaster are so high. It goes without saying that the better way to win would be for the individual player to do an abbreviated flop, get back up as soon as possible and get back into the game. And it also goes without saying that the rest of the team should leave the arguing to the guys on the sidelines. The “aggrieved player/team syndrome” is a lot worse than the low-scoring games and ties.

But I can understand why international soccer teams make this mistake. As ESPN radio’s Bob Valvano explained on his show after the officials robbed the U.S. of its chance to win its World Cup match versus Italy, international soccer and most European sports leagues and officials, are obsessed with the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. That’s why two U.S. players were ejected from that Italy game for light fouls the same way an Italian player was thrown out for darn near busting the nose of one of our guys. It’s all about following what it says in some rulebook, the tempo of the game and the justice of it all, (or lack thereof), be damned. With that in mind, why wouldn’t you devote all your energy to pointing out potential rules violations to the refs? If the game were officiated sanely, then playing sanely would be the only way to win. But since it isn’t, the players adapt by also being more concerned with the regulations than the action on the field.

What the heck does this have to do with our current troubles with Iran and North Korea? Well, soccer is the most accurate mirror of the European soul you’re ever going to find. And the customs of the game can tell us a lot about how European people and their governments approach negotiations, disputes, and crises.

The “letter of the law” obsession in soccer is very much in play when it comes to how Europe has dealt with aggressors like Iraq, Iran and North Korea for years. It’s not that the U.S. doesn’t try to follow the rules. It’s just that there comes a time when the details have to be passed over in favor of getting something done before it’s too late. We respect the rules, but what good is agonizing over rules when someone is about to launch an ICBM at you?

And there seems to be a friendly audience in Europe for over-exaggerated political protests just as there is for over-exaggerated injury displays on the pitch. Supposedly humiliated Muslims rioting in the streets over a newspaper cartoon are sympathized with. Palestinians crying in public over the targeted assassination of a known terrorist are given serious screen time. I can’t help but think these ridiculous displays are accepted in Europe because they’re not unlike the silly overreactions on the soccer field. It’s how the game is played, right?

I’m not saying the U.S. is playing the game very well either. If you’re going to bend the rules you have to choose your battles carefully, and an argument can be made that we didn’t choose too wisely by attacking Iraq the way we did and when we did. But I still have confidence that no matter who is president, the United States will think of its safety first and agonize about the rules later. I really don’t have that confidence when it comes to Europe, and what I’m seeing on the soccer fields of Germany isn’t boosting that confidence one bit.

So here’s my message to the Europeans: I love soccer. But please don’t play international politics by the same rules. Because no matter how much you love your teams, losing the geopolitical game is a lot more devastating than losing a sporting event. In this game, there is no injury time and no penalty shots. Oh, and remember the ball is always in play.


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