Soccer has had a hard time establishing itself in the US. With basketball, gridiron, hockey and baseball already ingrained in American households, another sport was always going to have a difficult time in sandwiching itself into the hectic schedules of Americans.
Soccer tried on multiple occasions. From the beginnings in the 1970s, with the New York Cosmos signing worldwide stars like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer to lure in audiences.
There was success to a degree, but it was short-lived. The NASL (North American Soccer League) died a painful, drawn-out demise. Until the late 1990s, when the Major Soccer League (MLS) was launched.
But this was not an immediate success. It took time to win new fans over to this sport.
And much of it was down to how soccer used to be perceived.
Many fans of other sports, particularly American Football, believe that soccer is filled with so-called ‘professionals’ who lack the physicality to make it big in other, tougher sports.
The same goes for how soccer is perceived by rugby fans in the UK. Considering how rough both gridiron and rugby are, their fans may well have a good point.
Watching a game of soccer nowadays really does highlight this train of thought. The game stops with a higher frequency than it used to. The referee’s whistle is heard more often than ever, with soccer players rolling around the turf like they have been hit with a shotgun.
And it is this element that other sports fans use to bash soccer with.
Diving? Flopping? Simulation?
Whatever you like to call it, it’s not a growing pandemic in the game of soccer – it is deeply rooted.
Soccer never used to be this way. It used to be a game for real tough men, with legs filled with scars and bathed in mud. The knocks would come every game but the referee would let the game run on. Sliding tackles were commonplace, and despite the increased physical nature of the game, injuries were not frequent.
And there’s a good reason for this, rather than soccer players being tougher in the past.
In the past, when players were unaware of a proper diet for athletes, fitness regimens and focused training, they were accustomed to knocks. These soccer players were built for extra protection.
The current day? Soccer players are built for one thing – speed.
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It’s all in the muscles
Ask any budding physiotherapist and they will tell you the main difference. The very muscle tissue and fibres that soccer players have, has now changed.
Soccer players are built to react and burst quickly. It makes the difference between victory and defeat. Soccer games hinge on potent counter attacks and the speediest players – and the ones who react quickest – are often the ones who grab the glory. Think Kylian Mbappe, Ronaldo, Mo Salah, Raheem Sterling.
They have an abundance in something called ‘fast-twitch fibres’ that are the building blocks of muscles. These types of muscles are built in such a way to have a greater capability to explode in a burst of power, from a standing start if needed.
But these types of muscles are not made for endurance.
And so, injuries are now far more commonplace. Add in football boots that are ultra-lightweight and the sheer amount of soccer matches a player must get through each season – and you have an idea why a player can injure himself simply running for ten yards.
Referee!! Blow the whistle!
That’s why soccer players get injured so much and perhaps why they’re treated with kid gloves – hence the stereotype for soccer players to be less optimised for physical toughness.
But it doesn’t give soccer players a free license to perform more rolls on the grass than a happy dog.
The flopping – or diving, as it’s more commonly known – happens with a ridiculous alacrity during a game. And when soccer players go down, we see histrionics that make the player clutching his face after being knocked on the knee, a bit of a laughing stock.
And we have seen some ridiculous tactics to gain an advantage, but more on that in a bit.
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Why do the players do it?
It is always to gain an advantage for their team. It isn’t an admirable trait though. It has been encouraged, in an indirect way, by the standard of match officiating in soccer at every level and in every region.
Match referees are only now beginning to have some help with video replays to help them ascertain when an incident is a foul or not. Before the last couple of years, they had to rely on their placement during events to see if they could get a good view.
Pulling wool over eyes
And many a penalty has been awarded when no contact has been made.
Worse still, players have simulated being hurt to get an opposing player sent off, giving a numerical advantage.
And until referees and video officials are working as one, cohesive unit, then simulation will continue.
The most memorable example came from one of the finest soccer players of this generation. Brazil’s Rivaldo, a former Ballon D’Or winner, threw himself to the ground in aWorld Cup game in 2002, when the ball was thrown at him and hit his leg. The Brazilian legend then unceremoniously dumped his whole body to the floor and held his face, rolling around in apparent agony.
Video replays on TV channels everywhere showed Rivaldo to have been more than dishonest. And if you search for ‘diving soccer players’ in YouTube, you will see no matter the occasion, even the best players have taken part in what some experts call ‘the dark art of soccer.’
Then there is also a bending of the rules. So many soccer experts state that ‘if there is contact in the penalty area, then a player is perfectly entitled to dive to the ground.’
Since when is soccer a no-contact sport?
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The question remains…
Every season, the debate rages over diving in soccer. A fair portion of experts state that if a soccer player feels contact from a defender in the box, then they should go down to the turf to gain an advantage.
This is because when an attacker stays on his feet while being fouled, the match referee NEVER blows his whistle to give a foul. So a player is apparently punished for not making the foul obvious.
But it does require a soccer player to exacerbate a foul. To essentially act on the soccer pitch.
All so a match official’s job can be made easier.
Just look at the amount of times we see things heating up on the pitch and two opposing players put their foreheads together in battle – like two beasts with no hands.
As soon as a hand is raised, the other player – or victim – will throw themselves down on the ground. This is to highlight to the match referee that a rule has been broken. A raised hand is an instant sending off, so the offending player should be given his marching orders.
Never mind if the actual force behind the raised hand was the same as a landing butterfly.
We come back again, to refereeing standards.
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The man in black
When will soccer be on a par with the likes of basketball, rugby and tennis? Match officials hold a hard line on instances during these sports and they keep the game flowing.
And they are backed up entirely by a fully-functioning, clear, video system that highlights infringements for a fully-qualified referee to adjudicate.
Until this system is in place, soccer will always play catch-up.
But in terms of thrills, spills and excitement? Soccer is amongst the best. Even these mistakes add to the tension, the angst, the sheer feeling that is attached to every soccer game.
It is why Americans finally took to the sport and why the MLS is burgeoning.
It is why the World Cup is the most watched event across the globe.
And why soccer is the most popular sport.
Who doesn’t like a drop of controversy?