Darren Hamilton on World Cup Soccer

Questioning Authority stepped away from the television long enough to ask soccer fan Darren Hamilton, a native of England and chair and associate professor of chemistry, what he thinks of the 2010 World Cup. Here’s what he had to say:

QA: Why is the World Cup a big deal everywhere in the world except the United States? Is U.S. interest growing?

DH: The U.S. is dominated by three professional sports--baseball, the other kind of football, and basketball--which have very, very limited global reach. About the only other situation I can think of that comes close to this level of domestic dominance coupled with global indifference is Australian rules football, or perhaps cricket in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Soccer faces a huge battle to reach a position of parity with the big three and, crucially, this battle won't even begin in earnest until a career as a soccer player can prove comparably attractive to a young athlete as one as a baseball, football, or basketball player. U.S. interest is certainly growing, however, and a good performance from the national team in the next round could provide a timely boost in interest.

I suspect the structure of the game is partly to blame. Where soccer offers flow, unpredictable plays, and quite free-ranging roles (goalkeepers aside) for the players, football is highly fragmented, rigidly scripted, and employs a huge squad with immensely specialized roles. It would be interesting if England could bring on David Beckham to take a free kick, and then replace him immediately afterward, but the game is structured in a way that avoids any further narrowing of roles than already exists within a typical defense-midfield-attack formation. I believe a source of the creativity and ingenuity shown by the best soccer players is found in the need to be far more of an all-around player than many other sports demand. It may be revealing that the counting of "assists"--a player's role in creating, rather than scoring, a goal--appears to be a purely North American obsession. Soccer just does not readily lend itself to this kind of analysis, perhaps to the bemusement of U.S. sports fans.

QA: There have been many upsets so far in the tournament. What's the biggest surprise to you so far?

DH: Just this morning, or rather afternoon in South Africa, Slovakia beat Italy--the holders and four-time winners--by 3 goals to 2. Italy joins France, the beaten finalists four years ago, in failing to make it out of the group stage. This makes me feel slightly better about England's prospects. We played passably against the U.S., atrociously against Algeria, and quite well against Slovenia, and thereby made it to the knockout stage. We play Germany next, and I'll be a nervous wreck come kick off.

QA: Did the U.S. get robbed of its third goal in the Slovenia match by a bad call?

DH: Yes. But in the spirit of embracing soccer's drama, including the occasional dodgy refereeing decision, you could almost see it coming. The referee had, as is often the case, let many small infractions pass during the game--the letter of the law being one thing, the desirability of a free-flowing game being quite another. A good referee can tread this line with poise and grace, and still make a mistake. This one did. But, in the end, the U.S. still qualified top of the group. Poetry.

QA: Who do you pick to win the title?

DH: My heart, and prior to their game against Algeria also my head, went with England. I honestly believed we had a great chance. We still have a hope, but we could also get thumped by one of the teams with real creativity on their side. Brazil is the obvious choice as winner, but I think the style and flair points have deservedly gone to Argentina so far, and it has the star individual player, in Lionel Messi, to win games in an instant. There are only seven games, start to finish, to win the title. A couple of last-gasp winners, a penalty shoot-out, and suddenly you are in the semifinal. England could do it...

QA: Do these refs really have it in for the U.S.?

DH: No. But my answer might well have been different had it been England on the receiving end of one of those bad calls.