The Ruricolist is now available in print.


The subject calls for precision. I will follow the American usage of “football” for armored rugby and “soccer” for association football. I don’t care about either one. My interest is the problem of soccer. By the consensus of the vast majority of human beings, even in the English-speaking world, soccer is the best team sport to watch. Yet Americans do not even reject it; we do not notice it at all – which seems to the rest of the world a fundamental mystery.

But the answer is simple. In the sports that Americans care about the difference between spectators and players is a difference of degree. The spectators of football, basketball, or baseball are capable, or have been capable, of playing the game; the players differ from them only by dedication and hypertrophy. Most of the pleasure is the sense of vicarious participation.

Spectators at a soccer game are as remote from what they watch as spectators at a horse race or a cockfight. Soccer begins in the suppression of instinct; it is an invented and unnatural discipline. In technique soccer is closer to a performance art than to other sports. That is not an insult; art hurts, performers must be tough. But learning to play soccer must begin very young, when habit is ductile and instincts have yet to calcify. To Americans, this remoteness simply excludes soccer from the definition of a sport.

Americans expect and are afforded the sense of vicarious participation everywhere in public life, even at the cost of concealing definite but remote offices and vocations with the vaguer but more sympathetic individualities of the people who hold them. Consider our music, where the perceptibly individual singer (especially songwriter), whatever the voice they are blessed or cursed with, eclipses any number of virtuoso instrumentalists, and where even the homuncular pop singer must observe the formality of protesting an artistic identity.

The rest of the world finds it easiest and seemliest to leave each sphere of public life to the kind of personality fit for it. In that respect parliamentary democracy is not unlike soccer, where politicians are not expected to be like people – not better or worse than people, simply different, political all the way through; cells in the political organism of the party, which misleadingly shares a name with what is not at all its American equivalent.

We get more second-rate singer-songwriters than first-rate symphonies; we vote down vague individualities of proved competence for clear individualities with vague credentials and vaguer positions; we watch the silly game of football. But we have this: soccer’s enthusiast is the rioter; football’s enthusiast is the armchair quarterback, which is one of the world’s noblest types. Democracy can work only because of them – the ones who take the time and make the effort to work out what I would do.