The Boring Game: Why Soccer Crowds Are So Violent
With frightening regularity, the World Cup morphs into the War Of The Worlds Cup. The global soccer tournament, which begins tomorrow in South Africa, has a history of violence more prodigious than that of Joran Van Der Sloot. A 2005 New York Times article did a nice job of summarizing the long and sordid history of crowd violence during the World Cup, but it only scratched the surface. Indeed, crowd violence is simply a fact of the World Cup, like silly scarves. Already this year, in a hilariously misnamed World Cup “friendly,” a stampede broke out that left nine in the hospital. Bear in mind that the real tournament has not even begun yet.
It’s tempting to attribute all of this violence to the kind of dumb nationalism that flourishes during global competitions. I was in South Korea during the last World Cup, a country famous for its jingoistic outbursts, and was genuinely taken aback by the proud racism and xenophobia expressed during the tournament. But there is also something inherent to the game of soccer that leads to such astounding levels of violence. There is a reason that the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic, and the Rugby World Cup do not lead to the kind of violence that is typical of soccer competitions.
It has to do with how utterly boring soccer is. The Beautiful Game is the Boring Game. The majority of stultifying soccer games are comprised of men running back and forth across a huge field, and failing to score a good, oh, 95% of the time. This goes on for ninety minutes. Russel Shaw of the Huffington Post may have put it best when he argued that it’s hard to be “enthusiastic about a sport where almost every initiative- advancing the ball down the field, attempting a shot on goal – leads to failure. Almost constant failure.” In comparison to baseball, another low-scoring game, “a 1-0 game is likely to have some artistry involved- the pitcher constantly out-thinking the batter by varying the speed and repertoire.” To watch a soccer game, however, is to watch athletes consistently fail.
Because the sport itself is so boring, so devoid of action, of physical contact, of life, it falls upon the hyped-up (and in many cases, liquored up) crowd to enact the action that it failed to witness on the field. The patriotic crowd shows up looking for blood, and ends up with a zero-zero tie. Simply put, it is because the sport is so lifeless, that the crowds are so prone to violence.
Consider, as a counterpoint, the lack of violence among crowds watching more physical sports. Hockey, for example, is a famously violent contact sport. Yet yesterday, during the ferociously intense Stanley Cup finals, there was no reported fan violence. The blood stayed on the ice, where it belonged. NBA Basketball is another action-packed, highly physical game. I was at an NBA playoff game late last month, and there was no violence to be seen. (Though there was plenty of mean-spirited rhetoric hurled at the players on the floor. They didn’t mean what they were shouting at you, Dwight!) The crowd was actually engaged by the sport itself. There was no need for the spectators to channel their aggression at their fellow fans. Soccer fans, on the other hand, are left to enact what they failed to see on the field: action and aggression.
The famed Welsh soccer player Phil Woosnam once remarked, “the rules of soccer are very simple, basically it is this: if it moves, kick it. If it doesn’t move, kick it until it does.” Many in the crowd seem to think that those are the rules for spectators, as well.