What a year to be a sports fan.
You have the staple leagues providing an amazing showing as they do every year, the NFL, NHL, NBA and so on, but this year is especially appealing if you are a footy fan. When I speak of footy or football in this sense, I am of course talking about the most sensible sport for the name, you know, that sport where you hit the ball... with your foot? Yeah... football. You, as I often do, call it soccer. The fact that when people say football, many think of a sport where the ball is played within a player's hands, thrown through the air, and only sometimes kicked, just goes to show how much "soccer" is on the backburner in the United States and Canada.
This year has already seen one of the most incredible cinderella stories in soccer history, with a "bottom-dwelling" team of essential "rejects" throwing down the gauntlet, and shutting up the big money prima donnas to win the English Premier League. A team that, the year prior, barely fought off relegation and being sent to the league below, turning around and over coming 5000-1 odds to hoist one of the most beautiful trophies in sports. Also, for the 2nd time in 3 years, two storied rivals steeped in history from across the same city, squared off for the title of Champions of Europe, and again, it was drama until the end and again, it had to be settled outside of 90 minutes.
This is the most popular sport on the planet. So why is it not so, in Canada and the United States?
The answer is not lack of exposure, lack of broadcasting, money, excitement, larger-than-life athletes, because soccer has plenty of all of that. It comes down to its competition. That competition is of course basketball, baseball and football in the United States, and hockey in Canada. This is not to say that soccer is not big, or growing in either of these countries, or that it is not cared about, followed, or watched, but it is not the primary sport.
The biggest reason? Respect.
Starting in the European Championships 4 years ago, FIFA, soccer's international governing body, started something known as the Respect Campaign and if you are watching the European Championships this time around, you will see they are sporting the words "Respect" on the sleeves of all national jerseys. This is to increase respect amongst players and supporters of all races, and beliefs but also, respect for the "beautiful game." Recently, the players lack of respect for the game, and undeniably, themselves has shown an increase of embellishment, acting, and diving, and this is something that is harming its growth in Canada and the United States.
To explain what I mean, take this example. The NHL playoffs just ended and hearing the commissioner Gary Bettman's words at the end when he handed over the Stanley Cup saying "this is undoubtedly the hardest trophy in sports to win" got me thinking. Players lose teeth, break bones, get stitches on the bench, fight and crawl to win that cup that can encompass anywhere from 16-28 gruelling games. That is what people in North America want to see.
Now, rewind to the first game of the World Cup in 2014. Hosts Brazil taking on visiting Croatia and the underdog visitors pushing the favourites to the brink. And then Fred happened. Brazilian forward Fred, due to a lack of skill, lost control of the ball with a heavy first touch and with his back to goal, felt a slight touch on his left shoulder and realizing he was losing his chance, throws his feet out from under himself and goes down appealing for a penalty. Not only appealing, but arms up screaming in disgust at the referee. Of course, in that environment and with that much pressure, the penalty was given and scored, with Brazil then taking control and going on to win. I could hear an enormous collective sigh coming from all of Canada and the United States, and then a click of the channel being changed to something else. It is very difficult to change a Canadian or Americans mind that this truly is "the beautiful game" and that it's not all "diving wimps" when things like that happen. These days with replays, players can not expect to get away with a dive because of the speed of the game. The referee might miss the fact that there was no contact, but the people watching won't.
People will jump to protect soccer players explaining that slight contact at that speed after that much running can cause a muscle to cramp, or a solid metal stud on the foot or bone can give you a shockwave of pain. I get that, but how is it that a hockey player can take a frozen solid puck at 90mph off the ankle and be alright, and a soccer play receives no contact and is in an unbearable amount of pain, yet completely fine once the play starts up or a card is shown. It's a lack of respect for themselves and the game.
Despite this, it is encouraging to see the growth of soccer in the United States and Canada through the MLS and also the increasing amount of educated soccer fans in these countries but regardless, it all starts with the players, and they need to pay their respects to the game for what the game has paid to them. Literally.
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