In my life, I have enjoyed both kinds of football. I enjoy watching American football on television. I have followed the ups and downs of the Chicago Bears (as my ulcers will attest). As for what the rest of the world calls football (soccer here in the U.S.) I played several seasons as a kid. I mostly played halfback, covering the entire field. I loved playing the game. However, every time I try to watch soccer on television, I have to say I am less than impressed.
I remember the first game I watched. The Chicago Sting, our professional soccer team at the time, got to the Soccer Bowl playing the New York Cosmos. The game ended in a scoreless tie and they had a shootout to decide things. The Sting won and brought Chicago its first professional sports championship in my lifetime. It was great. It was fantastic. Yet, watching it on tape the next day, I found myself scanning through the game at high speed. The problem with soccer is that it is too fast. It’s difficult to follow the players and the ball. The rule in television is, “When in doubt, go wide.” So, the cameras zoom out to make sure they can follow the action, but they depersonalize the players in the process. That 1981 championship game was reduced to a field of green with some bright spots dancing around on it. It was like watching pinball without the bumpers. I don’t think the technology quite exists to televise soccer at the same level as its American namesake. It’s similar to the problems American football had in the 50’s and 60’s. Back then, the networks covered a game with two, maybe three cameras and none of them had the extreme zoom range they have today. The game was extremely impersonal and – for a modern viewer – boring as all get out to watch. The NFL understood this problem and came up with a solution: NFL Films.
While TV had a handful of cameras, NFL Films used five, six, seven cameras. Each one had a long lens to pull the action in of a single hand, a darting look in a pair of eyes, dirt turning under cleats. NFL Films employed slow motion to transform football into a fluid ballet. TV concerned itself with the technical aspects of the game: play by play and instant analysis by any number of ex-football players and coaches. NFL Films could edit the games, score music and set it all to prose poems narrated by the great John Facenda (“Once in a great while, the clouds of chance will overshadow… the plans of men.” – Super Bowl V).
Soccer would be a natural for this kind of coverage. In fact, it would probably be better than American football. Soccer players don’t wear helmets that hide their expressions. Very few football stadiums have burned to the ground on the road to the Super Bowl. And there are unlimited possibilities for purple prose for teams that represent not just a town or a state, but an entire nation in the World Cup. I can see the slow motion kicks and stops, tight shots of sweat beads flying off the players as they collide, going for the ball. I can hear the tight miked grunts and sounds of running, coaches yelling at players and referees in various languages as the crowds are whipped into a frenzy. I can even imagine Americans actually sitting up and actually enjoying the World Cup.