Over at the New York Times, Roger Cohen has an Op-Ed contrasting football and football. I mean, Association football and American football. Or, rather, soccer and football. Roughly Cohen’s thesis is: soccer is all skill and art, football is all violent force and anti-finesse; America reveals its plebeian failure to appreciate soccer artistry by its obsession for football; no matter how much soccer is promoted or played, it is doomed in America. Roughly.
I’m inclined to think Cohen’s article is a classic piece of trollery, looking for hits in a slow news week (But is it really? The Palestinians and Israelis are talking about a new peace deal; fighting rages in Syria; Greek workers are striking; the ISI faces possible legal trouble in Pakistan; plenty of material for Cohen to turn his cool analytical lens on, so this bit of dabbling in sport is rather mysterious.) Cohen will, rather predictably, get taken to task in the Letters section. But I might as well start the party here.
Cohen commits a classic fallacy, common among a particular breed of sports fan, who might justifiably be accused of having missed the point: a superficial similarity between two sports does not entail a coherent comparison between the two. Should I, for instance, compare tennis to golf, because in both games there is a ball and an implement with which to strike the ball? So too, with football and soccer: yes, a ball is moved across the length of a field by a bunch of players, but that’s where the comparison should end. To continue further risks too much strawman construction and demolition.
The facile comparison of two radically dissimilar sports, which is bound to generate ludicrous generalizations, reveals nothing as much as ignorance of one of the sports being compared. I am used, for instance, to the pointless and endless comparisons between cricket and baseball, both of which I enjoy and take pleasure in. Those cricket and baseball fans that like both sports–and there are many, I assure you–watch on in bemusement as cudgels are taken up on behalf of sports which need neither defense or aggrandizement at the cost of the other.
Cohen, similarly, fires off well-worn cliches about football, imagining that in doing so, he is glorifying soccer by contrast; he does no such thing (ironically, the kind of jabs he directs at football have their counterpart in the ignorant rants made about soccer by the ignorant American fans Cohen derides.) More problematically, Cohen imagines that he is a harbinger of a greater cosmopolitanism to the hopelessly low-brow American sports landscape, bringing us news of sports played in distant lands that we would do well to focus our attention on, if only we could be bothered raising our knuckles off the ground.
But Cohen should know better: he started his article by telling us that Fox (FOX!) broadcast the Chelsea-Manchester United game live on Sunday. The mavens at Fox, who have their fingers on America’s pulse, know something that Cohen doesn’t seem to: soccer is a big deal in the US. Not as big a deal as football, and it probably won’t ever be, but big enough to make silly any use of it as a rhetorical device in complaining about American insularity.
To do that, there is plenty of ammunition to be found elsewhere. A good journalist should be able to track it down.