Monday, September 28, 2015
Every week, I come across some fascinating soccer stories that aren’t necessarily worth an entire blog, yet are entertaining. Therefore I’ve gathered a few of these here in a hodge-podge of reports that highlight the wide-ranging impact of soccer on our lives.
This past week, we played host to Pope Francis, who visited Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. We witnessed the heart-warming incident of a daughter of immigrants appealing to the Holy Father to speak to President Obama about the status of undocumented, watched the Masses performed in the three cities he visited, and heard him address Congress. However, a small item that missed most media outlets appeared in the Washington Post. It seems that D.C. United provided the Pontiff with his own special jersey emblazoned with Pope Francis and the number 10. Francis is well-known to love soccer and is an avid follower of club San Lorenzo from Buenos Aires, Argentina — his boyhood home. He hosted the Argentine and Italian national soccer teams at the Vatican two years ago, and during a public Vatican appearance last year, he was given an Argentine National Team World Cup jersey.
When San Lorenzo won the Copa Libertadores last summer, Argentina’s most prestigious club soccer competition, the team brought the trophy to the Vatican to celebrate their first-ever cup win with their patient life-long supporter. Given this history, Paul Hill (the subject of the film “In the Name of the Father”) suggested to D.C. United’s general manager, Dave Kasper, that it might be a meaningful gesture from the Catholic citizens of D.C. to provide the Pope with a jersey from the city’s MLS team. Hill used to be married to Robert and Ethyl Kennedy’s daughter and D.C. United plays in the RFK stadium. Since Ethyl had VIP access to the Pope’s White House visit, the delivery of the jersey was easily arranged and assured. Well sort of. Apparently Hill’s daughter and RFK’s granddaughter had to ultimately entrust the jersey to a papal aide, who promised that the Pope would receive it. And the number 10? That was easy. It’s Argentine nation soccer hero Diego Maradona’s number, and it’s Lionel Messi’s number. In fact, every self-respecting Argentine soccer fan swears by the number 10. Although maybe I shouldn’t say “swears by” when the Pope is involved.
We’re in the meat of the fall soccer season when youth clubs, most high schools, all colleges and our professional and semi-professional North American teams competing. That means we’re shuttling between our children’s matches and practices, and fields are overscheduled. I drive to or by dozens of fields every weekend, and they are mobbed with players finishing one match as others mill around nearby waiting for their turn to play. Parking lots are chaotic and crowded. I’m sure it’s the same wherever you live. With less than 12 hours out of 24 with any daylight, clubs schedule fields tightly and the effect only gets worse should there be games canceled due to bad weather. Every free, clear day is used to the maximum. So imagine my surprise on a gorgeous, mild weekend day when I arrived for a match at a soccer park to see the place deserted with the exception of the two teams I had come to watch. Six fields were completely competition fallow. I couldn’t believe it. There had been no heavy rains to turn the pitch to mush or threats of electrical storms on the horizon to limit play. Nothing was amiss yet it was a soccer ghost town. With some investigation I found out the culprit was a lack of referees to monitor games because of a tournament elsewhere in town using the available pool. So non-tournament matches were actually canceled and had to be rescheduled. It got me wondering how often this happens nation-wide. In reading message boards, articles, and blogs, I’ve discovered that most states report a severe referee shortage. Utah has stopped sending three refs to high school games because there are only enough certified officials for two at each match. I read reports from North Dakota, Maryland, New York, Western Pennsylvania and California, among others.
Of all the states responding to inquiries about referee shortages I only found one, North Carolina, reporting an actual surplus. Most referee administrators point to the increased verbal and even physical abuse referees endure as a reason for the dearth. The youngest officials have become disenchanted with minimal pay and maximum stress, so are leaving in record numbers which affects the future pool of experienced and older referees. Since most league rules require at least one certified official must be on the pitch before a game can be conducted, the shortage has begun to affect schedules evidenced by what I witnessed last weekend. In fact at that game a third referee did not show up until 20 minutes into the first half. As the number of referees becomes limited so does the professionalism of the game. Without certified assistant referees to assist the center ref, the burden of all decisions falls on one person who can’t possibly be watching for offside while also watching for field fouls. What happened this weekend may become more common and make completing the soccer seasons all the more difficult by adding no refs to the problems of weather and field availability.
USA News and World Report just detailed a study by the Soccer Price Index, which ranked MLS as the world’s worst soccer value among 25 countries considered. This index analyses the value a fan receives as measured by ticket price and quality of competition. England has the most expensive ticket prices, averaging $82.60, but ranks third in the world in terms of competition, so the EPL has an overall value ranking of fourth. Germany ranks 10th in ticket prices at $35.36, and a league ranking of second, which puts that country in first place.
Unfortunately, MLS has the fifth-highest ticket prices at $46.22 and ranks 25th in competition, which places it firmly in last place in the index. Those of us in the U.S. might consider traveling to Mexico, where average ticket prices are 24th at $11.72, beat only by South Africa at $9.55. Mexico is ranked 19th in quality of competition, which gave it a value ranking of 11th. I’m not sure what it all means in the end, since national leagues such as EPL, Bundesliga and MLS don’t really have any competition for fans of that level of soccer competition in their respective countries. We go to see the best we can and pay the price we are offered. Players from some of the top international teams have come to the MLS to finish their careers, but the league will take a big step up in competitive quality when they can start to attract young stars to play in the U.S. — and that requires money, so expect ticket prices to increase and our value to stay low as the MLS works to improve its place in the world.
Finally, ESPN’s 30 for 30 had a soccer series last spring that ran until the eve of the World Cup. I’m not sure how I missed it while it was airing, but I’m glad I caught up with it on the internet. I highly recommend the eight stories that touch upon all different aspects of soccer. First is Hillsborough, detailing a horrific soccer tragedy which has changed the way stadiums are built and fans are admitted. ‘Maradona ‘86’ examines the Argentinian’s masterful performance at the 1986 World Cup. Ceasefire Massacre highlights a tragic killing in Northern Ireland where a Protestant terror group murders six men watching in a bar the 1994 World Cup game between Ireland and Italy. The tragedy led eventually to a ceasefire a few weeks later in the beleaguered country. The Myth of Garrincha details the rise of a Brazilian soccer player who overcame deformed legs to lead his country to two World Cup wins. The Jules Rimet Trophy is the subject of the fifth in the series, Mysteries of the Rimet Trophy, which was awarded to World Cup winners from 1930 to 1970. The origins of the trophy are unknown, and it has been a part of some significant scandals. The agony of defeat shapes the film Barbosa:
The Man Who Made All of Brazil Cry. Goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa was a national hero until Uruguay scored a winning goal on him in the 1950 World Cup championship. Rounding out the series is White, Blue and White, covering the unusual dilemma of Argentine soccer players Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, who joined Tottenham Hotspurs of the EPL leading them to the 1981 FA Cup Final. They are lauded as English national heroes but that changed rapidly when Argentina invaded the British-held Falkland Islands. Ardiles quit the Spurs and returned to Buenos Aires while Villa remained in England. Their contrasting stories highlight an international conflict. All but the two-hour Hillsborough documentary are 30 minutes long, and each episode can be found on YouTube. ESPNGo has video clips of these shows but doesn’t offer an entire episode. Amazon has the DVD set for $18 although they don’t stream it on Amazon Prime.
Soccer extends beyond the field, touching various aspects of our lives and those of others. We can see ads with soccer as the context for things as diverse as cereal and life insurance. Human interest stories appear in the media regularly highlighting how soccer has empowered someone, provided a springboard for humanitarian efforts, or gave a player a new lease on life. We use soccer fields as landmarks when giving directions. The media pays much more attention to soccer matches and players, which translates into more Americans knowing about international leagues and following players from around the world. We have a soccer-loving pope, the First Daughters play soccer, and Obama supported a U.S. bid for the World Cup.
Therefore, we come in contact with soccer on a daily basis beyond watching our own kids play. It’s that variety of experiences that not only gives the sport validity for our kids’ choice of sports but also opens it up to become a part of our daily lives. I encourage you to take note of soccer stories and bring them to your children’s attention. These stories make great dinner table or driving to practice conversation. We don’t need to just discuss the results from league games or the injury reports of players. We can also talk about whether or not soccer was portrayed properly in last night’s episode of Modern Family or about the news report of soccer playing dogs. Soccer is everywhere, so we should celebrate that.