Why Soccer Fails With Me

Today was the first game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup for the United States team.  Like many American sports fans, soccer has never been a sport that resonated particularly well with me.

For clarity’s sake, from here on out, when I refer to “football”, I’m talking about American football, not soccer.  As an American sports fan, I simply cannot associate the word “football” with what I think of as “soccer”.  So, please, no arguments on this point.

I’m an unabashed follower of the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL.  I’ll pay casual attention to college football in the fall and college basketball when March rolls around.  I can sit through watching football, baseball, basketball, and hockey at any level, professional or amateur, because the game makes sense to me.  I was raised with those sports being the center of my sporting universe.

Every four years, the World Cup tournament comes around, and with each occurrence, awareness grows in my sphere of friends and contacts.  Several influences here:

  1. Ever-increasing media coverage of soccer in the United States, especially through ESPN.
  2. Meeting and befriending more and more people from different countries and cultures, where soccer plays a large part of their national/cultural identity.
  3. Global conversations through social media, expanding who I hear from and who I talk to.

I can pick Landon Donovan out of a lineup.

When it comes to international competition, I’m always going to root for the US teams, even if I couldn’t pick more than one US player out of a lineup (Landon Donovan).  With an eagerly anticipated opening match against England on a Saturday, I decided to visit a local bar to watch the US play.

The bar wasn’t too crowded when I first arrived, about 10 minutes before the start of the match.  I had no idea what to expect from a soccer crowd.  When it was all said and done, this crowd at least wasn’t any different from other crowds I’ve seen at this same bar for hockey games, football games, etc.

But as I sat there watching the game, I was mulling over in my head… Why am I just not as into this sport as everyone around me?  What is it about soccer that doesn’t click with me?

I ran through several possibilities, looking at the question from several different angles, and then something happened in the game that crystallized the issue for me.

The ball hit off of a US player’s forearm, stopping the play.*

You cannot use your hands in soccer.**  That’s the problem for me, and I’ll explain why that irks me to my core.

Opposable Thumb

Millions of years of evolution and natural selection have put human beings at the top of the food chain.  We’re the dominant species on the planet for a number of reasons; one of the key reasons is the evolution of opposable thumbs.

From Wikipedia:

The opposable thumb has helped the human species develop more accurate fine motor skills. It is also thought to have directly led to the development of tools, not just in humans or their evolutionary ancestors, but other primates as well. The opposable thumb ensured that important human functions such as writing were possible. The thumb, in conjunction with the other fingers, makes human hands and those of other species with similar hands some of the most dexterous in the world.

Simultaneous with the development of a larger brain, the opposable thumbs on our hands are what set us apart from the animals.  Using our hands in conjunction with our brains allowed us to develop the civilized society we have today.

And soccer takes away one of our most fundamental advantages as a species!

Soccer players, especially at the World Cup level, can do some amazing thing with their feet, their knees, their chests, and even their heads.  However, the foot is no substitute for the fine motor control of the hand.  Compare this to the four sports that I do follow:


  • Football, where the ball is thrown, carried, and caught with the hands. The foot does come into play, primarily to use the larger muscles of the hips and thighs to supply distance.
  • Baseball and hockey, which are predicated on the use of tools that are only made possible due to opposable thumbs.
  • Basketball, which is contingent on the hands’ fine motor skills – Shaquille O’Neal at the free throw line excepted.

Could be that with more exposure and more time, soccer would grow on me.  Before you think that it’s merely an American bias, let me assure you that, for the life of me, I cannot fathom why NASCAR is so popular, either.

But my gut is telling me that soccer fails with me primarily because it forbids the use of human beings’ most important evolutionary advantage.

Am I wrong?  Discuss.

*I’m not referring to the yellow card on Jay DeMerit. This was earlier in the match, wasn’t intentional, didn’t result in a yellow card.  I didn’t see what the player’s name was and couldn’t hear the announcers. Doesn’t matter.

**Unless you’re the goalkeeper. Or throwing the ball in from out of bounds.


  1. Seems unlikely to expect that anything you come at with limited knowledge (well, there are obvious exceptions that we won’t discuss on a family website) will enthrall you. Some things require time. I don’t know if you played much sports. Experience on the field or court can help understand how hard this stuff is. I played soccer maybe four times at Stony Brook–intramurals. We had a wonderful coach. I didn’t get the beauty of it, the subtle stuff (modern kids prefer graphic novels to James Joyce, what a shock) but I had fun. In any case, if you were willing to watch many games and read some and just let your mind breathe, you might grow to love the sport. Soccer, by the way, is a British term. Yup. Their invention. Football is fine. There’s much posing when Americans try to deal with soccer. I take it that your extended riff on the use of the hand is just a joke. One cannot take such an argument seriously when discussing a matter of religious import, like soccer. Our lads were excellent out there, yesterday. At that level, being excellent doesn’t necessarily cut it. But sports and luck are twinned. And if you play hard and well, you may get lucky. You don’t usually get lucky without the other two. Keep watching. It’s a shame for you to turn yourself off, at your very-young age, to one of the most beautiful things in the universe. As for me, I feel about computers the way you feel about soccer. Ignorance drives my emotion. Too bad.

    1. Richard,

      The riff on the hand was somewhat in jest, yes. Although not entirely. I put it out there as a different perspective on my ambivalence towards soccer, wanted to see if it resonated with anyone else. I do wonder if there really is something in our collective DNA that makes the deliberate disuse of the hand feel unnatural. Mostly an idle thought, and I could be completely full of shit.

      I was glad that I watched the US-England match yesterday, and I’m sure I’ll watch other matches during the World Cup when convenient. The Germany-Australia match today, for instance, probably would have been a good one to watch, but the lack of air conditioning in my house drove me to find cooler environs, without a television.

      There is certainly an artistry to soccer that I can appreciate immediately while watching the best players in the world. I’m sure it would grow on me given time and continued exposure. Am I going to give it enough chance to marinate? Maybe. I didn’t in 2006 once the World Cup ended. Or 2002, or 1998. 2010 might be different, especially if the US team plays deep into the tournament. Patriotism has a way of sucking you in.

  2. I played soccer as a kid for about three years. I played multiple positions (FB, RB, LB, SW, and WB). My dad took me to the original San Jose Earthquakes games back in the 80s, and I remember seeing Pele on the field for one of those games. I remember when the 94 World Cup was held in the US and our area hosted an few of the national teams, including the Columbians. And then, that one guy who scored an own goal got killed upon his return. We were all soccer fans back then. When the San Jose Clash came to town, I was at every home game at Spartan Stadium for the first two years, and then I lost interest. When they became the Earthquakes, I half-heartedly followed them, but baseball is and always will be my first and most dedicated sports romance (just like you with the dreaded Red Sox).

    This time around, though, I find myself pretty indifferent about it. Though, I have a change of heart for purely hormonal reasons, that led me to cheering full-throated for Paraguay. 🙂 Anyway, just wanted to say that I, too, experience ambivalence… but it has nothing to do with not being able to use your hands… it has everything to do with the fact that it’s like hockey without the full contact. I mean, sure, you could go see a full-throttle soccer game, but you’re lucky if the score is more than one goal per team. In hockey, it’s fast, it’s brutal, and it’s visceral! I’ll be the first to admit it’s exciting because of the constantly push and shove.

    Yet… I like hockey more than football. Go figure.

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