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Flop!: Chaos, Tragedy and the (Un-American) Beauty of Soccer

By

WHITE GUYS WITH DREADS.

I moved to the Midwest from Mexico City in 2009 for graduate school. Since I was the only Mexican in my program, I was paired up with a Colombian-American fellow who’d been at the university for a couple of years and would show me “the ropes.” He and his wife—both very pleasant, if a little hard to read—took me shopping for a bed and a desk, gave me a quick tour of campus, and pointed out the local soccer bar.

It wasn’t long until I was visiting the soccer bar regularly to watch English Premier League games. Manchester United had just picked up Mexican superstriker Javier “Chicharito”[1] Hernández, so I enjoyed catching their games and clapping proudly when my young compatriot scored.

A compulsive people-watcher, at the soccer bar I paid attention to the other patrons almost as much as I did the actual games. I immediately realized that there was something off about American soccer fans. Like somehow they didn’t belong. Like they were faking it. American soccer fans, I discovered, gave me the same feeling as white guys with dreads.

The thing that struck me as the strangest about American soccer fans was how indignant they were about players faking fouls. “Flop!” they said accusingly. “Flop!” When a player pretended he’d been tripped or rolled around on the grass as if his shin had been cracked in half, everyone at the bar made the face I would make if I saw someone push an elderly lady down an electric staircase. They got mad even if the members of their own team flopped. When the phantom fouls were replayed in slow-motion, everyone—again, regardless of their affiliation—groaned and shook their head. They seemed to be thinking something along the lines of, How does he sleep at night knowing that he tricked the ref into calling a foul?

CLAVADO.

As everyone who’s ever lived once said, “Words matter.”

Flop was a term I’d never really been familiar with until I heard it at the soccer bar. In Mexico we call flops clavados. Dives. As in, That player dove in the box and tricked the ref into calling a penalty kick. If there’s a particularly conspicuous dive, the announcer, in jest, might say something like, Where’s the swimming pool? In the Spanish-speaking world, we compare faking a foul to something beautiful, almost artistic. Flop, on the other hand, is just a simple onomatopoeic admonition. There are no good flops and bad flops. The flop is inherently negative.

Lately I’ve been hearing people[2] talk a lot about flopping because the NBA playoffs are on and flopping seems to be a “growing problem” in basketball. Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel called the Miami Heat floppers. (And was fined $15,000.) Everyone seems to be calling Blake Griffin and the L.A. Clippers a flopping team. During one of the games even David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, said in an interview that flopping was a very serious matter. Flopping is so shameful, says everyone. It’s ruining our sport. How can we put an end to it?

NUMBERS MEAN NOTHING

Forgive this horrible cliché: “Soccer is not just a sport, it is an entire mentality.” That was David Brooks in The New York Times Opinionator during the 2010 World Cup. Don’t roll your eyes at me. Brooks is right. And he gets even righter: “Soccer is a sport perfectly designed to reinforce a tragic view of the universe, because basically it is a long series of frustrations leading up to near certain heartbreak.”

The reason why soccer is such an anti-sport to American fans is that it’s tragic, incredibly frustrating and even melancholy.[3] I’m not saying there’s no tragedy in baseball, football and basketball, but those three sports ultimately espouse the worldview of a winner, while soccer preaches the gospel of losers. “We in this country prefer pastimes that are rational and quantifiable,” says Brooks. “Football plays can be drawn up in a playbook and baseball lends itself to statistical analysis.” While in soccer, “it is possible for a team to be outplayed for 89 minutes and yet still score one fluke goal and win the game. Superior performance often does not translate into victory.”

It’s no wonder losers are so drawn to soccer and winners so repulsed by it. If you’re better than everyone else, do you want the world to be quantifiable and rational or illogical and chaotic? What I’m saying here is not that soccer is a bunch of guys randomly kicking a ball. Soccer is, in fact, when played right, a game of subtle strategy and keen intelligence. But it’s also incredibly abstract. Too abstract to be quantifiable. All soccer statistics—except how many actual goals each team scored—are completely useless. Time of possession? Some teams play a defensive game and give their opponents possession of the ball. Offsides and corner kicks? I’ve never actually known if a high number of those is a good or bad thing.[4] Stats are given in soccer games only because stats are given in football and basketball games. We learned it from you guys. The only difference is that in football and basketball numbers actually mean something. If told how many passing yards, rushing yards and turnovers the Chicago Bears have at halftime, we can pretty much guess how the team is doing in the actual scoreboard. The same can be done with the Chicago Bulls if given the percentage of field-goals made. In baseball[5] some stats are part of the scoreboard itself.

I WISH I DIDN’T, BUT I HAVE TO MENTION KLOSTERMAN: A PARENTHETICAL.

Chuck Klosterman has a horrible essay on why soccer is bad for America in which he claims that outcasts like to play soccer because “it’s the only sport where you can’t fuck up.” Look, I know you probably like Klosterman, but that’s idiotic. I played soccer for most of my childhood and still remember some of the moments when I fucked up. Also, Klosterman’s argument doesn’t address the question of why outcasts like to watch soccer. This whole essay could be about why Klosterman is wrong on EVERYTHING regarding soccer, but that would be a very angry and self-indulgent essay to write. For example, I’d say things like, You know who else thinks soccer is bad for America? Glenn Beck![6]

WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH FLOPPING?

Everything.

I’ve always been bored by writers describing every single detail of a moment in sports, so even though I need to describe a moment in sports here, I’ll do it briefly. This happened in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium[7] during the 1986 World Cup. Argentina was playing England in the quarterfinals. The score was nil-nil. Diego Armando Maradona dribbled past two Brits, passed the ball to Jorge Valdano and ran straight into the box hoping to get the ball back amidst a bunch of confused and flat-footed defenders. Valdano then lost possession of the ball to an English defender who tried to clear it but instead kicked it awkwardly—lobbed it—into the box.

Now, running furiously toward the ball was poor little Maradona, at 5’5”, and against him Peter Shilton who’s not only about half a foot taller than Maradona but, as the goalie, is permitted to use his hands. If you know anything about anything then you know what happened next. Both Maradona and Shilton jumped for the ball and Maradona, that little trickster, raised his arm and knocked the ball in with his fist while pretending to hit it with his head. The ref was fooled. Argentina beat England 2-1[8] and went on to win the 1986 World Cup trophy.

That goal is famously known as the Hand of God because after the game, Maradona said it was scored in part with his head and in part with the hand of God. Yes, Maradona was basically calling himself God. Both of those things—the cheating and the grandiosity—would be reviled in all the big three American sports, but not in soccer. The Hand of God is not seen as a shameful stain for the sport. There is no asterisk next to Argentina’s 1986 World Cup championship. Maradona is regarded by most as the best soccer player in history. There’s a religion called The Church of Maradona. Not even the English are bitter about the Hand of God. Peter Reid, a midfielder for the 1986 British team, even kissed Maradona’s hand on TV. Besides, England had won the 1966 World Cup with their own famously dubious goal.

But of course that type of thinking hasn’t caught on in the United States. Why? America is Peter Shilton, taller than everyone else and the only one able to use their hands. The rest of us relate to the tiny forward running into the box. That’s why we like to see David coming up with a crazy plan to beat Goliath—and getting away with it! (As any loser will tell you, we’re always fantasizing about crazy plans to upend the world’s logic.)

There’s also the concept of fooling authority that’s appealing to losers. America, the perennial winner, likes their sportsmen to respect authority because they identify with authority. (This is, after all, the country that decides who gets to have nuclear weapons.) In the NBA one gets a technical for no more than giving the ref a dirty look. Arguing with the refs is almost unheard of in the NFL. And in baseball? Sure, every once in a while the manager will come out of the dugout and scream at the umpire, maybe even kick a little dirt here and there, but that’s permitted because it’s part of baseball’s tradition. It’s institutionalized dissent—even duller than the lack of dissent. That’s why flops are so abhorrent to American fans, they symbolize the authority figure losing control, which is what this country fears the most.

IT’S NOT WHETHER YOU WIN OR LOSE, IT’S WHETHER YOU COMPLAIN WHEN I WIN, WIN, WIN: A NOTE ON SPORTSMANSHIP.

Now, I must confess, I’m an extremely unsportsmanlike sportsman by anyone’s standards, but I have played youth and non-youth sports in both Mexico and the U.S. and I’m certain that sportsmanship is 6,000% a bigger thing here.

Youth sports is a perfect way for Americans to teach young Americans that the established hierarchy is the right hierarchy and that authority is never wrong. That way they’ll grow up thinking that 1) questioning authority is wrong, and 2) America is a superpower because America is meant to be a superpower.

WE DON’T NEED NO CELEBRATION.

Before I leave, I just want to get this out there: Americans always complain that there aren’t enough goals in soccer. Members of a culture that idolizes winning and winners along with immediate gratification, they want to celebrate constantly. Well, as it turns out, soccer is a game for adults. You sit there and you watch and you’re content with the beauty of how it plays out. Sure, the goal is, of course, the goal of the game, but as a stoner once told me, the important thing is the journey. That’s hard to sell in a country that lets its grown-ups act like children. (Just think of the superhero movies and animated movies that are marketed “for adults.” I’m fed up with people trying to convince me to watch Toys 3 or some other cartoon bullshit. As I write this, Charlize Theron is promoting a PG-13 monstrosity called Snow White and the Huntsman.)

People who complain about the lack of goals in soccer don’t seem to realize that the harder it is to get something the more gratifying it feels to get it. Just look at how a soccer player reacts when he finally scores a goal. I like basketball, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that most games seem to be relatively close in the last five minutes. So what was all that scoring during the previous forty-three minutes for? Just to keep us entertained between commercial breaks?

To appreciate soccer one has to understand that there’s beauty in failure. Which brings me to my last point:

AMERICANS WILL LEARN TO LIKE SOCCER.

That’s good news for me and other soccer fans who happen to live in the US, but not really. The reason for America’s jumping on the soccer bandwagon is that we’re transitioning into a post-American world. No longer will this country be the world’s boss/policeman/CEO/parent. The head of the world will be, in the near future, no one.

That means that America, the tall goalie who always gets the ball, is going through the painful transformation of becoming a short midfielder who needs to figure out how to upend the system to get his way. Basically, and I think we’re seeing this already with movements like Occupy Wall Street, America will be forced to sympathize with losers. Something that goes against everything it’s ever believed in, but that goes surprisingly well with soccer.

Welcome.

[1] “Little Pea.”

[2] I don’t mean just people here, I mean the media. Maybe it’s sad, but most of the conversations I have happen in my head and my interlocutors are journalists, TV personalities, writers, etc.

[3] Every time I watch an important game in the company of Americans, they always seem to be surprised to see the losing players cry, sometimes on their hands and knees, at the end of the game. But in the world of soccer it’s the most normal thing. Soccer players cry. A lot.

[4] Recently, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final with a very defensive style of play. Here’s a quote from the LA Times about stats in that particular match: “…the Germans dominated every statistic but the final score, putting more than twice as many shots on goal, drawing nearly twice as many fouls and taking 20 corner kicks to just one for Chelsea.”

[5] It’s no wonder that baseball, a game of statistics, pioneered the fantasy-sports phenomenon. There’s nothing more boring in this world than fantasy soccer.

[6] From Media Matters: In an extensive rant on the June 11 Glenn Beck Program, Beck purported to explain how President Obama’s policies “are the World Cup” of “political thought.” Beck stated, “It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.” Beck stated that likewise, “the rest of the world likes Barack Obama’s policies, we do not.”

[7] El Azteca, or as it is sometimes called “The Colossal of Santa Úrsula”—Santa Úrsula being the neighborhood it’s in—is a truly imposing setting with its capacity for 100,000+ spectators.

[8] Argentina’s second goal was also scored by Maradona, this time legally, and it was the most beautiful goal ever scored on a soccer field.

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Pablo Piñero Stillmann has received fellowships from the Foundation for Mexican Literature and Indiana University. His work is forthcoming in Cream City Review and The Normal School. He lives and writes in Indianapolis. More from this author →