There have been many curious things that I have learned since I have been in the U.S. but there is one thing that I have not been able to understand and that is American sports. I love sports and I have been a fan of many of them for a long time, so when I first arrived in America I was looking forward to learning about American football and baseball. It was not like what we call football, and there was nothing back home that was like baseball, but I was willing to try it and see. When I first saw a football game I was confused about all the rules, so I studied them to help me understand the game. I went back to see it again and I was still confused. How did this game get so popular? The same thing happened in baseball. I studied the rules and then watched a whole game. The same question came up. How did this game get so popular? Shortly after that baseball game I began to understand just how different a country the United States is from my own country and from many others. Sports can tell a lot about a country, and American sports tell a lot about America.
The first thing that I learned about American sports was that, like European sports that are popular today, they began in the 19th century. Baseball, especially, seems like a game that was developed in the countryside. But it was also true of football. Baseball developed at a time when most people lived in the country and not the city. People who live in the country have more time to play sports, it seems, since there is no clock in baseball. A game can go on and on and on until there is a winner. This was a surprise to me. I am used to what we call football, the sport that is called soccer here. The clock is a very important part of the game (as it is in American football). Not in baseball. People seemed to think that there should be nothing to determine the final score of a game but the play on the field. I admired that when I first heard of it. But when I saw the game itself it seemed cruel. Why should anyone want a game like this to go on and on? The same thing seemed to be happening with every pitch, with a tiny number of times when something actually happened. Why would people be so invested in keeping such a game going? I realized that if you played the game from the time you were young you may find it more interesting than I did, but it still seemed very slow. I turned to football as a faster and more decisive game.
It turned out to be equally confusing to me. American football seems like a game that was invented by frustrated 19th century soldiers. When a team ran the ball, it seemed like World War I: all pounding on the ground for a few meters. When the team passed the ball, which was more exciting, it was like artillery. Even the terminology was similar. Long passes were described on television as “bombs”. Passing was described as an “aerial attack”. It felt like everyone who was watching the game had never heard of World War I, which was brutal and punishing and did not resolve anything. In American football it feels like a very organized war, with strict punishment for doing even little things wrong. There were time penalties (‘delay of game’) and procedural penalties (‘false start’) and penalties for too many men on the field. There were so many penalties and so much organization that a game that is scheduled for sixty minutes takes three hours to play. I watched a game with American fans who seemed to be hanging on every play and commenting on every play. They admired their favorites, like I do in soccer, and talked about old games that they remembered, like I do in soccer. But I could not understand how they could be so invested in a game where the players have to wear so much equipment to keep from being hurt that you could not see their faces. I was amazed to learn that players were not allowed to take off their helmets on the field or they would get a penalty. It was impossible to tell how they felt except on a few plays in a game. This seemed to me to keep fans at a distance from the players. It felt very muffled for that reason. Despite my growing confusion I determined to keep trying.
Nothing helped. As much as I tried to watch baseball and football I could not enjoy the games. They were either too brutal in football or too boring in baseball. And I could not get my American friends to get interested in soccer. They all said more or less the same thing: how could you enjoy a game that could end in a zero-zero tie? Or one-zero? They kept asking me that and I would show them highlights on YouTube of great players making great plays. A few of them enjoyed the highlights of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two greatest players in the game, but for them it seemed like most of the action was a waste of time. They would lose interest during a game very quickly. They were only interested in scoring.
Eventually I realized that sports is something that you learn as a child and that education stays with you forever. I would never be a fan of American baseball or football, just as Americans would never really be big fans of soccer. Early training had determined our sports for us and there was nothing we could do about it. I felt sad about it for a while, but I saw that things were changing, too. Americans were liking soccer more, in general. But there would never be the same investment in soccer as there is in baseball and football (and basketball too). Even ice hockey is more popular than soccer in America, and I could not even see the puck when I tried to watch a hockey game.
The gap between American sports and soccer, the most popular game in the world, is very big and will continue to be very big. The distance between the United States and other countries is symbolized by this difference in sports, and it is not likely to change. I do not think I will ever be a real American because I will never really enjoy American sports. I have hopes that soccer will get more popular here, but it will always be the very little brother of American sports. The one American sport that I do enjoy is basketball, and that is played all over the world. I guess I will have to be happy with that.