After months of media hype, superstar British footballer David Beckham has finally made his American debut. Now everyone's asking the same question: will US fans remain as excited about the arrival of the much-ballyhooed Beckham when they discover that this alleged "football" player actually plays soccer?
The main problem Beckham faces in his attempt to conquer an American audience is that, despite its worldwide popularity, soccer here remains a marginal sport, frequently lumped in with such other late night sports cable staples as Ice Fishing, Ultimate Slapfighting and Extreme Tech Support. Also working against Beckham is the fact that, unlike today's great American sports stars, he apparently has never used performance-enhancing drugs or run a large-scale criminal enterprise from his home. But hey, he's a top athlete - perhaps with practice he will adjust to the American style of play.
Sportswriters have floated countless ideas on how to make soccer more palatable to an American audience, such as to incorporate "beer breaks" into each half of play, showing the game from the perspective of an embedded "ball-cam," having the players ride motorcycles while dressed as characters from the movie Road Warrior, etc.
The biggest obstacle to getting Americans on board with soccer is that the game's most fundamental rule sounds like something out of a fraternity initiation. "OK, pledges, I'm going to kick this firm, leather ball as hard as I can right at you at point blank range. All you have to do is stop it. Oh, and by the way - no touching the ball with your hands. Now line up!"
I just think the game would be much more exciting if field players were allowed to use their hands for something other than evacuating their sinuses as they run onto the field. In this opinion I am joined, by the way, by almost all of the players currently participating in my five-year-old daughter's afternoon soccer class (they have already mastered the nose-picking aspect of the game). Each class the coach dedicates a significant portion of time to reminding the kids that they can't touch the ball, punch the ball, bounce the ball with their hands, or pick up the ball and throw it into the road at passing vehicles.
At least my daughter's coaches know the basic rules of soccer, something that couldn't be said of the adults who coached my youth soccer league. Wait, that's not entirely accurate. True, my childhood teams were often "coached" by dads who could no more explain the fundamental rules of soccer than, say, recite the entire works of Emily Dickinson in Bantu. But we did have a few coaches who understood soccer intimately, having played the game since childhood. We might have benefited from these coaches' knowledge a little more if they had spoken any English, but hey, you can't have everything...
As a result, whenever one of the players would commit some flagrant violation of the rules such as stuffing the ball under his shirt and running in circles, the chorus of oblivious dads cheering "Go, go, go!" would often drown out the heavily accented shouts of "No, no, no!" from our Romanian, Dutch and Kenyan coaches. The '70s were a complicated time to grow up.
But today, with help from knowledgeable, English-speaking coaches, my daughter's generation is learning the proper way to comport themselves on the soccer field. I only wish the same could be said for those of us on the sidelines. After all, what common factor unites all the parents of little league baseball, football, basketball and hockey players in this country? Besides the odor of Ben-Gay wafting from their minivans' upholstery, that is? That's right, it's the unwavering belief that one's child is being treated unfairly, whether by the coach who isn't giving Junior enough playing time, the other team's players with their flagrant fouls bordering on aggravated assault, the corrupt referees who fail to whistle these infractions and, worst of all, the opposing teams' parents who are clearly injecting some sort of banned growth hormones into their kids' juice boxes.
Yet during my daughter's soccer practices, the other parents seem almost oblivious to the action on the field as they blithely read magazines, chat with one another and talk on their cell phones. I want to yell out, "Hey, pay attention! The kids aren't the only ones who are supposed to be practicing here! Speaking of which, did that out-of-control son of yours just elbow my daughter?"
By applying ourselves, I feel that American soccer parents can one day become every bit as petty, obnoxious and quick-to-violence as the parents trading insults, punches and gunfire on the sidelines of all the other major American youth sports.
After all, even an international superstar like David Beckham can't single-handedly turn soccer into an American sensation. Certainly not without using his hands, anyway.