Great Game, Bad Acting

By Rick Morrissey
Updated: June 22, 2010

CHICAGO — I used to believe that the true character of international soccer could be found in the fake-injury phenomenon.

You know what I’m talking about — a player gets knocked down, writhes in pain, appears to be in need of last rites and then, a few minutes later, miraculously gets to his feet and returns to action.

Happens about five times a game.

But something has changed during the current World Cup. If a snapshot could be taken to sum up the tournament, it would be of a player with a horrified look on his face.

The look would seem to indicate he had just witnessed an airplane exploding in the air. The discerning observer would know that, in reality, the player had just been whistled for a minor infraction.

The theatrical feigned injury and the mix of facial expressions worthy of a Greek tragedy get very old, very fast, especially when the score is 0-0 and in no hurry to change.

Not a hater

Please understand: These are not the observations of a soccer hater. These are the observations of someone who is completely and utterly conflicted about soccer. There is so much to like about the sport. The athleticism of the players. Their endurance. Their incredible passing ability and creativity. And the energy in the stands is amazing.

But something so over the top emotionally should deliver more, shouldn’t it? Jim Carrey’s face isn’t as elastic as some of these guys’ faces. And the 40-Year-Old Virgin scored more often than these guys do.

Oh, those pained expressions:

There’s the violated look of a player who believes a referee has stolen something dear from him, quite possibly his wife or the option year in his contract.

There’s the anguished look of a player who has missed what he considers to be a golden scoring opportunity and knows another one will not come for five games.

There’s the exasperated look of a player who can’t believe how far IQs have plummeted among soccer referees. There’s the enraged look of a player whose shirt has been illegally grabbed.

One or more of these reactions happen every minute in World Cup action.

I never thought anyone could whine more than the Spurs’ Tim Duncan. I was wrong. Whining is widespread in soccer, and there’s not nearly enough scoring to make it palatable. At least Duncan adds 20 points to his 10 pouts a game.

On Monday, we had the convergence of the two soccer phenomena. Switzerland’s Valon Behrami threw an elbow at Chile’s Arturo Vidal, who fell like a corn stalk meeting a thresher. Upon receiving a red card, Behrami looked as if he had been wrongly convicted.

(In Behrami’s defense, it wasn’t much of an elbow. It was something that happens in every NBA game without so much as a whistle.)

Vidal, once his apparently broken body had instantaneously healed, was up and about a moment later.

Why have theatrics taken over this sport? It could be an example of evolution at work. In the absence of scoring, something else moved to fill the void. That something was the whine, the pout, the mask of outrage.

Carping reached critical mass Friday, when a referee’s call took away a goal that would have given the United States a 3-2 lead over Slovenia. Instead, the U.S. team settled for a 2-2 tie and a boatload of griping.

It would be a lot easier to appreciate the American team if the players and the coach had talked more about how god-awful they had been in the first half against Slovenia, a country of 2 million people.

The Slovenians completely outplayed the United States in the first half and led 2-0. But all we heard afterward was about the gallant comeback and the highway robbery that was visited upon the U.S. team.

We saw a lot of handwringing about the Goal That Wasn’t but Should Have Been. A team more comfortable with its place in the soccer world spends more time kicking itself for allowing the game to be settled by a referee’s poor decision.

The first step to being big league is to act big league.

But at least we’re not the French team, which is in turmoil. To get into the particulars would take up too much space, but suffice to say France went scoreless in its first two games, the team director quit and the players refused to practice Sunday. Divas, all of them. You’d never see players boycott practice in basketball, baseball, football or hockey here, especially in the playoffs.

Soccer people want everyone to believe completely in their sport, but they don’t make it easy.

One is all you need

On Sunday, New Zealand pulled off the stunner of the World Cup thus far by tying Italy 1-1. Do you know how many shots New Zealand had on goal? One. One shot in 90 minutes. That is correct: It scored its only goal on its only shot.

Even the most rabid soccer fan has to admit that it takes a lot of effort to embrace a game like that.

A plea, then: More goals, less overacting, please.