I'm going to take a big risk and admit something that even my parents don't know about me. I'm a soccer fan.
There, I said it.
It started three years ago, when I began coaching my sons' soccer teams in the spring and fall. I didn't know a thing about the game, but I knew how to coach kids. By the time the 2006 World Cup rolled around, four years later, I had learned enough about the game to be a willing spectator.
I was transfixed by the ceaseless ebb-and-flow of attack and defense, as teams bargained and gambled for advantage. I cheered the improbable, last-minute German victory over Poland in the first round, and relished the surprisingly taut Argentina-Mexico elimination match, which the Argentine's won 2-1 in overtime.
For the past few weeks, I've watched world-class athletes race, leap, jostle, and battle. The famously bloodied face of USA's Brian McBride, who took a sharp elbow under the eye against Italy, shows just how intense the games can be. Or consider the bloody-minded celebration of Switzerland's Philippe Senderos, who gashed his head on a goal-scoring header against South Korea. Both these guys got stitched up and returned.
The point being, soccer is tough. Maybe not rugby tough. And certainly not football tough, where careers are often measured in knee surgeries, like counting the rings on a tree. But it is tough enough.
Which is why I despise the theatrical behavior displayed by so many players on the world stage. The entire second half of the Ghana-USA match devolved into a maudlin Broadway spectacle, as one play-actor after the next fell to the turf in flamboyant distress. Each delicious dive was tailored to draw a yellow card or at least hold up the action. Watching the Ghanaians, their backs arched, their mouths opened in howls of imagined agony, I couldn't help but think of Willem Dafoe's epic on-screen demise in the movie Platoon.
And the refs were buying it.
Soccer is a great sport, but it is the only sport I've seen that actually rewards the play-acting of injuries. I've seen things done to hockey players that would make their mothers cry, yet these men pull themselves off the ice and keep skating. And don't even get me started on the NFL, where the size, speed, and strength of NFL players produces brute force impacts rivaling anything created in a particle accelerator.
But all it takes, it seems, is a gentle rap on the shin guard to unleash the inner actor in every soccer pro. Players twist, fall, crumple, and curl. Teeth clenched, hands gripped to shin or ankle, they roll importantly on the green turf, waiting for the inevitable call.
But slow motion replays do not lie. There is no more delicious moment in World Cup soccer than the instant you see a player—in apparent mortal agony—glance around to see if the official is going to call the foul.
Look, play acting in sports happens all the time. Ask any punter who has flopped in an effort to draw a roughing penalty. Or check with any offensive lineman who hopes to duck a false start call by pointing accusingly at the defensive tackle.
But this business of feigning serious injury is just… unmanly. Worse, when officials fail to call a foul, it leaves the thespian completely out of position. After all, it's hard to mark up an attacker when you are busy grimacing on the grass.
The cynical spectacle apparently has no limit. Guys are stretchered off the field—presumably to have their organs harvested—only to return four or five minutes later able to play. I'm sorry, but when was the last time you saw an NFL ball player return after being carted off the field?
Soccer is a fine sport. I enjoy and appreciate it. But there needs to be accountability. A simple Meatwagon Rule might help. To wit: Any player taken off the field on a stretcher stays off the field, for good. Or take it a step further: Any player who suffers an injury that requires trainer attention must be substituted out for at least four minutes.
And if none of that stops the crying and the flopping, institute instant replay. Have a booth-bound "injury judge" review each foul. If they see a player feign the pain, he gets a yellow card, just like that. Hey, they can even hand out style points.
At the end of the day, there's not much a frustrated fan can really hope to do. Feigning injury is part of the culture in the game of soccer. Hockey players fight. Baseball players scratch themselves. And soccer players writhe on the ground in simulated agony.
So yes, I've enjoyed watching the World Cup. But after a couple weeks of this thespian display, I can only ask one question: Is it football season yet?