Silicon Insider: Soccerization of America

I'm a great admirer of the game of soccer. It's fast, relentless and requires amazing athletic skill. I was reminded of that while watching the incredible performance by the U.S. soccer team in its World Cup games against Mexico and Germany.

But I don't think I can ever love soccer. One reason is that I don't think human beings went through two million years of evolution in order to invent a game that prohibits the use of hands.

But there is an even more important second reason: It makes me think about the roof of the San Francisco Giants dugout at Pac Bell Park.

Let me explain.

I'm hardly the first American to notice that World Cup level soccer is not only incredible athletic but also shockingly histrionic.

Every foul is followed by the recipient rolling and writhing on the grass as if gut shot; and every goal is followed by the player ripping off his jersey and racing about the field, arms out in a campy don't-you-love-me gesture that would make a Judy Garland impersonator wince.

But the absolute nadir came during the U.S.-Mexico game, when a Mexican player was fouled and dropped to the field as if dead. With all of the solemnity of a warrior's funeral he was gently lifted onto a stretcher and carried off the field. The crowd sobbed at the horror unfolding before them.

The camera followed the cortege to the sidelines … and just before it pulled away, the lens caught the player leaping off the stretcher, Lazarus-like, to run back out onto the field. James Brown could learn from this guy.

Spirit of Baseball — Fearless, Combative, Tough

It was at this point that I suddenly and inexplicably found myself thinking about that dugout roof.

At least once during every Giants game my eye wanders down there to the collection of eight emblems painted on the roof. They are a century of Giant Hall of Famers.

Four, bearing numbers, represent players I saw in their prime: Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda. The other four simply show the NY emblem of the old Polo Grounds Giants. Two are legendary hitters: Bill Terry, the last National Leaguer to hit .400, and Mel Ott, pound-for-pound the greatest slugger of all time.

But it was of the other two names that I thought as I watched the Mexican player chew up the Korean scenery: John McGraw and Christy Mathewson.

More than anyone, even Babe Ruth, McGraw defined the spirit of baseball. As a player, he was fearless, combative and tough. As a manager he was all of those things, only more so.

It wasn't hard to imagine what the Little Napoleon would have said to that Mexican player: "Rub some dirt into it and shut the hell up."

As for Mathewson, perhaps baseball's greatest pitcher, and certainly its beau ideal, one could only compare all that gnashing and weeping on the soccer field with the indelible image from the last game of the 1912 World Series: Having pitched his heart out for 10 innings, but betrayed by error after error by his teammates, Christy quietly walked off the mound at the end of the game without a word of excuse or complaint.

Secretariat Never Mugged for the Crowd

That's what baseball is all about. You either take the shot or charge the mound. You don't swoon and fall into the on-deck circle.

If you are Barry Bonds this season, you take the chin music and trot down to first — and assume that your pitcher is going to even things up next inning. It's why Greg Maddux's expression never changes, whether he's throwing a shutout or getting shelled. And it is why Jackie Robinson is an American hero.

As Mickey Cochrane said about the great second baseman Charlie Gehringer, "He says hello on opening day and goodbye on closing day, and in between he hits .350." Needless to say, Gehringer never played soccer.

The same is true about all traditional American sports and its athletes.

Can you imagine the Celtics' Robert Parrish prancing around Boston Garden, tearing off his jersey, and dropping to his knees as he sobs after a victory?

How about Chicago Bears' Bronco Nagurski theatrically leaping off a stretcher to do jumping jacks on the sidelines? Or the Boston Bruins' Bobby Orr wandering in curlicues around the ice clutching a cramped calf muscle?

And I don't seem to remember the athlete of the century, Secretariat, mugging for the crowd at Churchill Downs.

The Soccer Mom Bloc

Perhaps that is why soccer seems so alien to most Americans — three-fourths of whom never watched a World Cup game.

In fact, only two groups in this country seem to have embraced the sport: new immigrants, who can be forgiven, and middle-class soccer moms, who cannot.

The SUV moms love soccer, I think, not because of its style and beauty, but because, in its cheap shots and endless pleas to the teacher for justice, it most resembles a schoolyard. And that is something they understand — unlike the battlefield of football, the Arcadia of baseball and the high-school gym of basketball.

Remember, this is the same voting bloc that gave us Bill Clinton, a man most other men instantly recognized (as the polls showed) as utterly untrustworthy.

At the time, there were various theories for this soccer mom vote. One held that these women saw Clinton as their first husband. Another that they secretly wanted to sleep with him. But I think they saw in Clinton the grown-up version of those precocious little demon children you see dragging them through the mall.

The appeal of soccer to this cohort is similarly contradictory: Soccer is a game that appears egalitarian, but is actually acutely hierarchal; seems open to even the worst spazzs, but in fact requires exceptional athleticism; and looks well-supervised and well-behaved, but is in fact a game of cheap dramatics and even cheaper shots.

Is This a New Way of Life?

So, even as I sat there, bleary-eyed, watching the soccer game but thinking about baseball hall-of-famers, it was obvious to me that soccer is winning over the United States, not just as a sport, but as a way of life.

Eighteen months ago, the economy took a nasty turn as the new economy bubble burst. Most of us got burned. Why? Not because analyst Mary Meeker or CNBC or Global Crossing suckered us, but because we got greedy. As greedy as the people we are not putting on trial.

Everyone I know was obsessed with getting rich, right now, and we believed all of the delusional garbage because wanted to. If an insider deal had been offered to us, most of us would have taken it.

There were prudent and sagacious voices out there, including many tech industry veterans, who warned us that we were in for a fall — but we laughed at them.

Then came the crash. And now, for nearly a year, we have paralyzed the stock markets, as we (with the government's support) have embarked a nationwide hunt for scapegoats.

We've been fouled, and instead of taking the shot, learning our lesson and moving on, we have been limping about, moaning and hoping for sympathy from the referees. We demand that someone be penalized.

Are Enron and Arthur Andersen guilty? Yes. But if we were honest enough to look into our own hearts, we'd find that most of us are guilty, too.

If we want to see prosperity again, we better get up soon, brush off and head down the basepath. Otherwise, if we want to become a soccer country, then we better learn to accept a soccer country's economy.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” is editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised. For more, go to And you can talk back to Silicon Insider via e-mail.