Thursday, July 10, 2014

Soccer - America's Future - and Past

Evening Public Ledger, 10-26-1915
On Tuesday night’s (July 8, 2014) Late Show with David Letterman, sportscaster Keith Olbermann joked that in America, “soccer is the sport of the future – and always will be.”  Olbermann acknowledged that the joke was not new.  He even commented that etymologists had researched the phrase, and found that it dated back to the 1970s.  

The joke dates to as early as 1990, according to Barry Popik’s online etymological dictionary, The Big Apple.  Popik recently posted a list of several citations to versions of the joke dating back to the early 1990s, although the joke is probably even older:  

[T]he old joke goes: soccer in America is the sport of the future and always will be – most of the rest of the world couldn’t care less.

The Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, Virginia) (N.Y. Times News Service), June 4, 1990.

The joke plays off the long-hoped-for (by soccer enthusiasts) rise of soccer in the United States.  Popick credits Kyle Rote, Jr. with earliest attestation of the joke’s set up line, “soccer is the sport of the future.” The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), March 3, 1974, Eloy Aguilar (Associated Press Writer).   

But the sentiment, if not the exact phrase, is much older:

Proof of the popularity of soccer in Philadelphia at least was forthcoming last Saturday when nearly 1000 players were actively engaged in the game.  It has been said up to the present Americans have not taken up the game with any great enthusiasm, and that it is mostly played by Englishmen.  This was true a few years ago, but it is not the case now.

At  least 80 per cent. Of those taking part in the game in the city and vicinity last Saturday were Americans and not hyphenated ones at that.  Now that the schools and colleges are taking up the game, it is bound to forge ahead.

It was 20 years before soccer attained its great popularity in England, and 10 years from now it should be one of America’s national games, judging from the strides it is making. 

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), October 26, 1915.

But despite soccer's permanent status as sport of the future, it is also our past.  When Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, the first inter-collegiate football game in the United States, they were not permitted to carry the ball.  The “Association Rules” were only a few years old at the time (1863), so I'm not really sure whether it was even called “soccer” yet (the word soccer having been formed from an abbreviation of ‘association’); but it was closer to pure “foot”-ball, in which the ball is moved primarily with the feet.   

[(Surprisingly, perhaps, the stereotypical football cheer, sis-boom-ah, was heard at that first game.)]

American college teams did not carry the football with their hands until Harvard played Canada’s McGill University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 15, 1874.  McGill introduced Harvard to a version of the Rugby game, which had traditionally been played at the Rugby School in England.  

The Rugby game found fertile ground in the United States.  A review of the first Harvard-McGill game in Harvard’s newspaper, the Advocate, proclaimed:

Football will be a popular game here in the future.  The Rugby game is in much better favor than the somewhat sleepy game now played by our men.

Parke H. Davis, Football the American Intercollegiate Game, Charles Scribner’s Sons, September, 1911, page 65.  

The attitude expressed by those Harvard students contrasts with the opinion of an English-born soccer referee thirty years later:

The Washington Herald (DC), November 27, 1910
Socker football as it is played in the United States is entirely too rough and unmanly, says R. S. Court, the well known socker official. A referee has a miserable time while he is on the field during a game.  The spectators in some towns are worse than the players – mostly in the mining towns.  The spectators should encourage the referee when he is trying to prevent rough playing instead of calling him all the names they can think of.

The Washington Herald (DC), November 27, 1910.

Rough soccer may be unsportsmanlike, under the rules of soccer, but to decry “rough” play as “unmanly” may encapsulate the difference between the national characters of England and the United States. About one hundred years before the Harvard-McGill football game, the orderly, well-trained Redcoats lined up in perfect formation in open fields and complained about the backwoods tactics the Colonists employed – they hid behind trees and wore camouflage – how unsporting of them, I must say. 

It is now more than one hundred years since referee Court complained about the unmanliness of rough sports, and soccer has not yet surpassed the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NHL in popularity.  I guess it’s back to the future, again.

As for my part, I do not count soccer out.  Nearly every single person I know who was born after the early ‘70s played in some form of youth soccer league and has a better understanding of the game than I do.  It is interesting, though, that everyone plays soccer in their youth, yet avoids watching it later in life.  Perhaps it suffers the stigma of being a child's game; does anyone (other than Patches O'Houlihan and his ilk) watch professional dodgeball?  I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, so the answer will have to wait.

I may have missed the soccer boat, but the future is now.  No, really, I mean it this time.

Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii) December 14, 1905

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