Soccer and the Loss of Masculinity

Photos taken during the game between the Netherlands and Cameroon in Cape Town during World Cup 2010.

By Paul Koch

To say that I am not a fan of soccer would be a gross understatement. I am often befuddled by its popularity and cannot understand why parents continue to encourage their children, especially their sons, to participate in this strange sport. I am regularly reminded by passionate sports fans that this is the most popular sport in the world, and therefore, it carries a certain promise of common ground for conversation and experience in our global economy. It is commonly referred to as the beautiful game, and I must admit that when I watch a skilled athlete, there is a majestic beauty that is found in their ability to control a ball with such precision and agility with seemingly no effort.

So, why do I not like it? Why do I think we should never allow our sons to get too involved in this game (in its current state, at least)? One word: flop.

The flop, or dive, is when one person fakes an injury caused by contact with another player in order to gain an advantage in the game. Now, from what I can tell, this is just part of the game. It always has been and always will be. The theatrics involved are on par with a high school theater class as you watch a grown man writhe on the ground in pain, grabbing his knee or ankle or whatever part has come in contact with another player in hopes that the referee will award a penalty. They can go from rolling and screaming in pain to standing and back playing at full speed within a few seconds. And it is here that the beautiful game is anything but.

Now, I know that there is flopping or faking of injury in other sports. They can be used to gain some time (i.e., in football to draw up a new play) or occasionally to try to punish the other team (via penalty). But they have never been established as just part of the game, something that is to be encouraged and respected, as it is in soccer. The closest you get is the flopping that comes in basketball, but that is an entirely different animal. It is still part of a legitimate play where you try to cut off the path of your opponent and take a charge. In other words, no NBA player is writhing on the ground in pain like a broken-hearted schoolgirl in order to get the call. They are trying to draw a foul, not fake an injury.

The issue with the fake injury that happens at the highest levels of this game is that it cuts to the core the very spirit of a man. I don’t understand how a man can train and work so hard for so long to be so dominant at a game that requires this insane level of skill to then regularly fake an injury to get an advantage. All toughness, all resolve to press on, all pride to fight through the pain is simply thrown out the window for the opportunity to gain some small advantage. Winning comes at the cost of your masculinity.

I think that the casual acceptance of this as “just part of the game” is deeply disturbing. There should be outrage and disgust, but there isn’t. In fact, because there isn’t, I think perhaps this game really is part of a national conversation and experience.

The encouragement on all sides is always to do what wins without much regard for the cost. In the Church, we are led to adopt worship practices that are foreign to our theology because it works, it wins, and that is all that matters. When it comes to our health and wellness, we are bombarded with pills, supplements, gadgets, and surgeries that will lead to success, but we never hear of the side effects. We only want to win, and the easier, the better. In our business endeavors, we are encouraged to align with the winner even if the winner is of a different spirit than us. And we seldom question what it might do to our spirit.

So, when the spirit of a man, his strength, honor, and courage to fight on, is thrown aside for a hysterical hissy fit on the field, we are encouraged to applaud as long as it helps our team win. But perhaps it’s time to ask what we are really losing.