Over the weekend, France and Croatia squared off in the championship match of the 2018 World Cup. The French team—which only has six players (of twenty-three) you and I would think of when we imagine a Frenchman—defeated the plucky Eastern European squad 4-2, an astoundingly high score for a soccer match.
Other than watching my students play occasionally, I can’t stand soccer. The game has numerous flaws: it’s overly-long, without any true breaks (an obstacle, as my brother pointed out, to monetization—you only have one half-time in which to show commercials); the scores are too low; and the action is rare.
The typical soccer game certainly requires a great deal of endurance: I’m told that an average soccer player runs several miles during the course of a match. But it’s all kabuki theatre, at least to my (admittedly) untrained eye. All that running around seems to accomplish precious little, as players scamper about for agonizingly long stretches of time without really accomplishing anything.
In that meaningless but constant motion, I see a metaphor for the political systems found in nations that are perennially good at soccer. Take this year’s champions: France is not about actually being productive—scoring points—but about treading water. Lycee-educated bureaucrats kick back to comfortable, easy jobs with short hours; workers of every stripe enjoy excessive labor protections; nothing is open on the weekends.
No wonder France’s unemployment rate in 2017 was 9.4% (down from a modest 10% from the previous year), while its youth unemployment rate is a whopping 19.3% (and didn’t get below 20% until April of this year). French youngsters can’t get employment because the statist economic system limits growth, discourages innovation, and incentivizes bad or lazy employees. Employees cannot be fired “at-will”—that is, without cause—and the process to remove underperforming employees takes month. If you’re a French employee who knows he’s going to be fired, you might as well kick back for a few months and enjoy getting paid for doing nothing. What’re they going to do, fire you?
While we should certainly treat workers with respect—and some labor protections are no-doubt positive—we have to remember there’s an employer who has put up a great deal of capital to try to make a profitable enterprise work. No employer, no employees. Sometimes a worker, while well-intentioned, just doesn’t work out, and the employer needs the flexibility to replace underperforming employees at will.
But I digress. This essay is ostensibly about soccer. Some additional thoughts:
Soccer is inherently un-American. Yes, it’s hugely popular with younger children, which has led pundits to predict its ascendancy for decades. But let’s consider why it’s popular. John Derbyshire in his latest episode of Radio Derb argues that soccer caught on among upper-middle-class American children because their overprotective and status-conscious mothers saw it as “European,” and, therefore, more sophisticated and cultured (ignoring, as Derbyshire points out, all the hooliganism that goes with soccer).
A more compelling theory is Chuck Klosterman’s, from his 2004 book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, a collection of essays that I enjoyed immensely in my graduate school and early teaching days. Klosterman argues that children like soccer because they’re bad at sports:
Soccer unconsciously rewards the outcast, which is why so many adults are fooled into thinking their kids love it. The truth is that most children don’t love soccer; they simply hate the alternatives more. For 60 percent of the adolescents in any fourth-grade classroom, sports are a humiliation waiting to happen. These are the kids who play baseball and strike out four times a game. These are the kids afraid to get fouled in basketball, because it only means they’re now required to shoot two free throws, which equates to two air balls. Basketball games actually stop to annihilate them.
That is why soccer seems like such a respite from all that mortification; it’s the one aerobic activity where nothingness is expected. Even at the highest levels, every soccer match seems to end 1-0 or 2-1. A normal eleven-year-old can play an entire season without placing toe to sphere and nobody would even notice, assuming he or she does a proper job of running about and avoiding major collisions.
When I read this passage originally—probably around 2007 or 2008—I experienced that state that constant readers know well: the state of having read one’s innermost thoughts and experiences in a book. As a perpetually plump (and extremely unathletic) child, I looked forward to soccer in Middle School PE class (and my high school NJROTC class) because I knew I’d be able to stand around doing nothing most of the time, and the good athletes would cover for me.
Again, we come to a metaphor for working life in socialistic bureaucracies (and, sadly, many corporate gigs): if you just keep your head down long enough, someone minimally competent and motivated will get something done; just try to avoid messing up spectacularly and you’ll be okay.
When I’d heard that the United States failed to make it into the World Cup, I was relieved. It’s not that I don’t want the United States to do well—if we’re going to do something like participate in professional soccer, we might as well do it as well as we can—but I was loathe to witness the spontaneous generation of soccer “fans” awakening from their four-years’ slumber to proselytize about how it’s such a good game.