What if people are falling out of love with soccer?

Around 15 years ago a British soccer journalist called Will Buckley  published a novel called "The Man Who Hated Football." The protagonist was, needless to say, also a soccer journalist, but one who'd fallen out of love with the game because it was taking itself too seriously. It was basically Buckley's farewell letter to the sport. While the novel may have had its merits (I never read it), the book was not a success -- people who loved soccer didn't want to read a book about someone who hated it. People who hated soccer didn't want to either.

Unless you've always been fascinated by the leagues of Belarus or Burundi, the chances are that you haven't watched any live soccer for a couple of weeks. As we've been told by a thousand conscientious pros and commentators, sport is not a priority right now. Still, it's an interesting question to ask at this point -- is there any chance that you are falling out of love with the game? That absence is making the heart grow colder?

A friend in the U.S. e-mailed me last week wondering if everyone who supported the game before the COVID-19 pandemic would be just as committed when it eventually resumes. He told me how he'd been a dedicated fan of baseball up until the 1994 strike. After the strike he stopped going to games and has paid the professional game much less attention since. The same thing happened to him after the NHL strike 10 years later.

As Buckley's novel proved, stories about people who fall out of love with sport don't make for popular narratives. So, switch off and tune out if you want to, but otherwise we don't want to know. What, though, if hundreds of thousands and fans are discovering during these weeks of absence -- weeks that will certainly morph into months -- that they are no longer quite so much in love with soccer as they thought they were?

"Love" is in any case a problematic, hyperbolic and arguably erroneous word to use in association with sport. During these past two weeks, I've found myself dogged by intense sentiment for absent friends and family, especially those more vulnerable to an infectious disease. Like millions of others, I've been getting in touch with people I haven't heard from in a while, just to check that they and their families are holding up. Meanwhile, I haven't missed soccer for a single minute.

That's not to say my affections won't return when the sport does too. It's something of a surprise, though, to discover how easily it dropped off my priority list. The soccer calendar rarely affords us a break of this nature, and even if the league you follow is in its increasingly curtailed offseason, you can be sure that another league, competition or international tournament will be making demands on your time. It's as though the soccer industry itself always suspected that interest might flag as soon as the game takes a breather, and so stocked up the calendar as insurance against losing significant numbers of subscription-paying consumers.

When soccer resumes, games may have to be played behind closed doors, or with fans sitting three seats apart. Initially, it's going to feel odd to be playing at all. If the current season resumes, players will be physically and mentally out of shape. They may not feel like playing any more than I presently feel like watching, or will feel like watching on TV if there are no supporters in the stadium.

Such a malaise may spread down to the amateur level. Perhaps there will be a raft of players who decide that competitive sport is overrated. That practice several times a week before a demanding coach is not the way to spend their free time. It could be that while searching online during endless hours of enforced indoor leisure, we discovered a hundred new places we'd prefer to explore at weekends rather than driving for an hour to sit on the bench fending off mosquitoes. Maybe thousands of young players will find a cause worth fighting for more than three points and a plastic tournament medal. Referees could have worked out that getting yelled at for pocket money is no longer their idea of fun.

Like so much that's being written right now, this is all supposition, probably born of too much time spent indoors. That soccer will need to adopt new financial practices, however, is already an imminent truth. How well-equipped will it also be to deal with a cultural recalibration?

(Ian Plenderleith's latest book, The Quiet Fan (Unbound, 2018), attempted to use comedy, anecdote and self-reflection to explore the role that soccer plays in most people's lives, and the way that we watch and relate to the game. You can buy it HERE.)

18 comments about "What if people are falling out of love with soccer?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, March 25, 2020 at 10:50 p.m.

    Watching is not engaging in sport. I love playing sports. I could not care less about watching.

    I have walked away from bad situations (because they spoiled the fun), but that didn't mean I didn't love playing.

    The entertainment industry is not the sport. 

  2. Dan Woog, March 26, 2020 at 11:14 a.m.

    No one knows what soccer -- or education, Broadway, the restaurant industry, Congress or anything else -- will look like when this is all over. We do know, almost certainly, that things will be diffeent.

    All I can offer is this comment from the father of a 16-year-old Development Academy player here in Connecticut. I said, "Your son must really miss it." 

    He replied, "Not really. He misses his teammates, and the social aspect. He doesn't miss at all the constant training, all that travel, and the pressure." 

  3. Ian Plenderleith replied, March 26, 2020 at 5:12 p.m.

    Pressure-free, travel-free pick-up soccer with a few friends - possibly the game in its best and purest form!

  4. Kevin Leahy, March 26, 2020 at 12:10 p.m.

    Something or someone I love never ends. The whole world will be different when this ends. Staying close to the game is one of the reasons I was a coach and a referee. It doesn't replace family. Will continue to watch because, the fire will never go out as long as I am drawing breath!

  5. Peter Bechtold, March 26, 2020 at 1:03 p.m.

    There is a huge difference between youth soccer as done in the USA and in most of the rest of the world, where youth teams "belong" to clubs with senior teams in organized leagues. The vast majority of those are at the amateur level, and they do not involve parents providing transportation and water/orange slices,etc. We have known for decades about talented youth players here--both genders--feeling "burn-out" as they reach the upper teens. That part is unrelated to the current health crisis.
    Secondly, soccer fans come in many forms: some just support their hometown team, others follow famous clubs and players in distant lands,; many combine both, these are the true fans of the sport.
    Having played/coached on 3 different continents I can assure the audience that there will always be boys(mostly) playing pickup on an empty space just to execrise, and for a few to dream about making the senior team. The American version of youth soccer and its relationship to HS and College ball--unique in the world--may change, but the sport overall is so much bigger than what happens in the US or in Burundi/Belarus for that matter.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, March 26, 2020 at 2:02 p.m.

    Well said, Peter.

  7. frank schoon replied, March 26, 2020 at 4:14 p.m.


  8. John Richardson, March 26, 2020 at 3:27 p.m.


  9. beautiful game, March 26, 2020 at 5:18 p.m.

    Maybe this pause will give time for FIFA kahunas to re-examine LOTG and bring back some common sense to the rules, referees and players. Upon reflection, that may be too much to wish for.

  10. Kent James, March 27, 2020 at 3:27 p.m.

    For people who have been consumed by soccer, and enforced break might be healthy.  For those of us who don't spend every waking minute engaged with the game, I don't think the break will be as significant.  I miss playing (I had to stop a few years ago due to knee problems).  For many decades playing, coaching and refereeing took a lot of my "free" time.  I never got burned out (I think having a mixture of ways I participated helped), though the short breaks between seasons were usually welcomed.  I now have a lot more weekends free, though I picked up competitve tennis, which keeps things interesting.  While I agree that pick-up games and non-competitive interactions are a wonderful way to enjoy sports, friendly competition does keep things interesting (if only that it varies your opponents and gives you a measure of your game).  The enforced break may force (or encourage) people to re-evaluate their relationship to the sport, but I don't think that's a bad thing (either for people or the game).  Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, March 28, 2020 at 12:21 p.m.

    My knees and ankles are still fine, but I quit any kind of tennis in my 30s as too much pounding on my knees and ankles. Grass courts would have been okay, but I only had hard surfaces available.

  12. R2 Dad, March 28, 2020 at 12:06 p.m.

    Soccer? No. The Nats? Maybe.
    Bruce Arena wins. Everything is fine, none of the change the talking heads demanded after Couva have been implemented. It's smooth sailing for the USSF/MLS/SUM dreadnought. 

  13. Bob Ashpole, March 28, 2020 at 12:28 p.m.

    Why are you repeatedly implying that Arena backs the status quo? He wrote a book about the changes needed. Or is it that you didn't like the changes that he proposed? 

  14. R2 Dad replied, March 29, 2020 at 1:30 a.m.

    There is a clip I couldn't find, interviewing Arena not long after the match. He was asked what needs to change with US soccer, and he basically said" Nothing. We're fine. Nothing needs to change".
    The ESPN crew reacts:
    Bruce Arena with the nice attitude...not very contrite, he should have resigned on the spot at Couva. But he didn't and is supposed to be representing the USA in public. and yet right after the match we get:
    BA quotes:
    ""In a lot of ways, our team did a remarkable job coming back and positioning themselves to qualify," Arena said. "In all honesty, Mexico and Costa Rica were better teams . . . but we should've been the third one. I accept that responsibility. That's why I resigned so quickly." Only he didn't and wanted to feel out Sunil to see if there was a way to continue--thankfully there wasn't.
    "That's the way it goes. I don't feel good about it, but that's life. I'm not embarrassed by it because as a coaching staff and as a team and an organization, we really gave everything we had."
    Blaming the players:
    "I told [the players] we've got to be ready. I think our players understood that. A lot of pressure built up, especially after we conceded the first goal. We seemed to get ourselves settled in after that and conceded another goal, and some people cracked."
    Asked if his players had taken enough pride in representing the country and qualifying for the World Cup, Arena said: "We had good citizens. We had a couple of bad eggs, as you have on every team. We were well aware and the players were aware" of who they were.

  15. R2 Dad replied, March 29, 2020 at 1:31 a.m.

    Danny Williams:
    "I think there are too many political things going on behind-the-scenes. [...] I wasn’t really close enough with the team for that amount of time so I can’t really talk, or give too much information, because I don’t really know about what happened.

    Obviously I spoke to the boys when I was in Portugal. Everybody has a different view. I heard from a few people that they tried to ‘market the MLS’ a bit more in the [World Cup] qualifying games and get a name for the MLS. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be about that. It should be about quality and bringing the best players and having a plan. That is it. It is not only the U.S. that failed. Holland failed. Italy. Chile. This is unbelievable. Something is obviously going wrong because other smaller nations, they are speeding up their process. When I look at Iceland, they are a small country but they are actually playing at the World Cup."
    Of course Arena denies it:
    "We took who we felt were the best players, regardless of where they played. The statements are completely false."
    He's a big jerk and deserved the humble pie:
    “You’ll coach many years. Some days it works—hopefully more times than not it works—and some days it doesn’t. And I can’t explain why it didn’t work. We had a number of guys that had bad games on the day—the same team that had a remarkable performance four days earlier. I can’t explain it,” Arena said. “I will never listen to anyone the day after the game with all the answers. You got some answers for me the day before the game? During the game? I’m listening. Everyone the day after, you’re a bunch of phonies. I don’t want to hear about it the day after. We’re all the best coaches the day after.”
    On any other country on this planet, do you really think the lack of contrition would be acceptable?
    "The team was flawed, Arena said, and he was having enough trouble forging that chemistry with what he had. There certainly wasn’t time to add too much new blood.

  16. R2 Dad replied, March 29, 2020 at 1:35 a.m.

    “The team we had not the field against Trinidad at the end, [compared] to a team that would’ve been on the field at the opening game of the 2018 World Cup, there’d be as many as seven changes. … We knew we had to get better, but we had to somehow manage to get through 2017 and qualify and try to make our team better for a World Cup."  Excuses--leaders don't do this.
    Ives Galarcep: "Then something happened. Arena's hubris in the wake of that early success led to some moves that laid the groundwork for the failure in Trinidad. He called up and started Fabian Johnson despite Johnson not having played yet since returning from a back injury. He started Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream together despite them having no real history as a center-back tandem. He left Tim Chandler home despite Chandler starting regularly in the bundesliga and Eric Lichaj playing sporadically in the English League Championship.The Costa Rica loss should have served as a wake-up call, but it didn't. Instead, it led to Arena losing faith in two of the team's best players, Cameron and Johnson. He benched Cameron for Omar Gonzalez, which then gave us Gonzalez's shocker against Honduras, and he benched Johnson. At the time, both moves were understandable, but then Arena compounded things by keeping Cameron benched for the October qualifiers despite Cameron clearly being a better defender than Gonzalez. He also then chose to leave Johnson in Germany rather than call him up, this despite the fact Johnson was clearly back to full fitness by then, unlike in September, when Arena threw him into the lineup and then watched him be invisible against Costa Rica.So there was the U.S., in Trinidad & Tobago with Johnson back in Europe, Cameron on the bench, and with the U.S. fielding the same exact lineup that had played just four days earlier. "

  17. R2 Dad replied, March 29, 2020 at 1:36 a.m.

    The funny thing is it's Klinsmann who always got the rap for having the big ego but at least Klinsmann was an accomplished player in the game.
    To top this all off, BA writes a book months after getting fired, a money grab telling us why we suck at soccer.
    Travis Yoesting:
    "Arena, the man who helped put the U.S. in this situation, explain what’s wrong with U.S. soccer when he's part of the problem. By all means give him money to coachsplain to us why he couldn’t succeed against weak competition......So, “What’s Wrong With US?” as the title asks? Bruce Arena is what’s wrong with U.S. Soccer (and his money-grabbing book).

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, March 29, 2020 at 8:13 a.m.

    Is this the missing clip: None of what you quoted supports the proposition that Arena favors the status quo. Arena resigned 3 days after the defeat. Okay so he didn't resign before the flight home and talking to his boss. As a general rule I don't second guess coaching decisions about matches, because I am on the outside and cannot see the situation as the coach does.

    Perhaps there is some private information that you are unable to share that is the basis of your opinion. I can respect that, but you can have a poor opinion of Arena and question his motives while still recognizing that he doesn't support the status quo.

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