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  • "Soccer is a sissy sport!"


    ccs-54-14026401115_thumb.jpgWarning: This is a very long read, much longer than I originally intended.


    Everyone reading this column has heard it over and over.

    The refrain of the ill-informed: "Soccer is a sissy sport!" or "Real men don't play soccer!" or Insert variation along the same theme here.

    If you're like me, you've heard this refrain come from all angles -- from friends, overhead at a sports bar, spoken by some blowhard on television, etc. And if you're like me, you've spent a lifetime laughing it off, knowing that the people who say such things are products of a North American sporting consciousness that simply doesn't know any better.

    "Let them laugh it up, they have no idea what they're missing."

    The above attitude has gotten me through years of ignorant ridicule, mostly coming from those who've never kicked a ball -- in anger or otherwise -- in their unenlightened lives. My laissez-faire approach to it has served me well over the years. I truly didn't care what people thought about the sport I held so dearly.

    I mean, if I cared that much, I would have given up a long time ago, right?

    Despite this, I'm still a (somewhat) normal person, and my mood on a particular day will dictate how I react to certain things. On a bad day, I may take offence to the refrain much quicker than I would regularly.

    Last week I had one of those days.


    Sitting amongst some of my closest friends, the discussion turned to soccer. Aside from myself, only one of these people had ever played the game growing up, be it at a competitive level or otherwise. However, there were a few self-professed admirers of the game within the group.

    One friend of mine is a fellow journalism grad who now works in the industry and grew up a baseball and American football guy. Over the past decade, he gained an appreciation for soccer and is now a City supporter (it's not Duane, although like the esteemed Mr. Rollins, he was a fan of the blue half of Manchester well prior to that club hit the oil jackpot).

    Oddly enough he is also one of the people who, as a teenager, used to give me the most grief over soccer players' perceived fondness for falling over at the drop of a hat. Now he's as well-versed in the world's game as most of the footy people I know.

    Also among the group is a dyed-in-the-wool Leafs fan. Like many in Canada, hockey is number one through ten on the sporting totem pole, with everything else competing for a distant eleventh. That said, he, too, has in recent years developed a soft spot for the beautiful game.

    You could say he is everything Toronto FC had hoped to cash in on when they took a gamble on this soccer thing a few years back -- a hockey guy with an open mind who took in a TFC game and was hooked. A teacher, he's told me stories of he and his fellow faculty members taking in Euro 2008 matches during their lunch breaks, and is now actually the head coach of his school's boys soccer team (a damning statement about the grassroots of Canadian soccer, but I digress).

    Another guy in the group was actually born in England, and through familial ties is a lifelong supporter of a lower-league side from the outskirts of London.

    I could go into brief primers of each member of the group, but that's beside the point. I just wanted to illustrate that this circle of friends isn't what you'd call anti-soccer. Of the dozen or so of us that were there, at least nine had been to numerous TFC and/or Canada games at BMO Field.

    That's what made this discussion -- and my reaction to it -- so weird.

    Someone mentioned a recent soccer game, and one of the hockey-lovers immediately chimed in that soccer players are, for lack of a better word, "sissys". The comparison was instantly made -- no soccer player would ever block a puck, go to the locker room to get stitched up, then merrily slog back onto the ice like a hockey player would.

    I just shook my head at that comment, muttering something under my breath about logical fallacies.

    My friends -- as close friends are wont to do -- sensed an opening and piled on. Your closest friends will always find a way to push your buttons, and mine are no different.

    Usually, I'll roll with the punches and give as good as I take, but on this occassion I was just not having it for some reason. I got genuinely angry at such an absurd assertion.

    If you watch enough soccer, you'll eventually witness the same kind of toughness on display that hockey fans love to puff their chests out about. It's just not as abundantly obvious though, as hockey is a much faster game played in very tight confines.

    Hockey embraces violence, it's in the sport's DNA. That doesn't mean that it can automatically stake a claim to all the "tough" athletes in the world.

    I tried to relay that point in the discussion, but it was met with scorn and derision.

    Bringing up my own injuries -- of which I'm currently carrying quite a few just from my twice-weekly rec league participation -- didn't help. Nor did it help when I mentioned the time I walked off the pitch with -- unknown to me at the time -- a fractured ankle.

    Of course, this made me angrier. And of course, being the group of a-holes that I've grown up with, they piled on some more.

    It took me a while to calm down, but like always, I did. After a few days I started thinking about the subject again, and upon further reflection it was no less ridiculous to me than it was at the time.

    The notion that one can take the most extreme example -- the heroic hockey player who stopped a puck with his face yet doesn't miss a shift -- and apply it to the entire sport was simply ludicrous to me. Especially when that same principle was applied to soccer, but in a negative context.

    "I've never seen a soccer player get stitched up and continue playing," one friend said that night. Of course, when asked how many soccer games said friend has actually watched, the answer was predictably low. Very low.

    As a Canadian soccer fan, I've seen captain-turned-pundit-turned-grassroots crusader Jason de Vos play with a blood-soaked bandage on his head, going into challenges with the same vigour that made him a feared centre half in two of the most brutally physical leagues in the world.

    And who could forget Christine Sinclair, the fearless leader of Canada's women's team, getting her nose broken in the 2011 Women's World Cup and actually getting visibly pissed off when the medical staff were taking too long in getting her dented appendage fixed up enough to allow her to get back on to the pitch?

    Sinclair would finish the tournament wearing a protective mask, despite worries that the covering was insuffiecient to protect against further concussion possibilities.


    Pretty bad ass, right?

    Of course, it wouldn't be fair for me to get upset about sweeping generalities regarding the perceived softness in soccer players while also submitting the most extreme examples of footballers "getting on with it" as Exhibits A and B of the inherent toughness of footballers everywhere.

    The fact is, there are many, many soccer players the world over who don't hold a candle to our Canadian captains in terms of resiliency. And only a select handful would ever approach the bravery of Iain Hume, who damn near lost his life in a game and battled his way back to the field just months later.

    But the existence of the De Vos', Sinclairs and Humes of the world prove that there are soccer players cut from the same cloth as the toughest athletes you'll ever see.


    "But what about all the diving that goes on in soccer? You never see that in hockey."

    That was actually said to me, almost verbatim, during the discussion. It was also said to me during a completely separate conversation with an acquanitaince just a couple of weeks previous.

    On both occassions, I could barely contain my laughter.

    Let's be real. There is a ton of diving in soccer.

    As an undersized player who was always among the smallest on the field of play yet never took a dive in his life, it disgusts me that diving is so prevalent in my beloved game. But moreover, diving offends me as a fan of fair play.

    I hate it. I've almost gotten into fights on the pitch when others have done it. And I'll be the first to yell every obscenity known to man (and some not) when I witness it from the stands or on my television screen.

    The problem with diving in soccer is that the rules of the game allow such chicanery with very little consequence. It's become just another way to gain an advantage, and unfortunately it's worked so well that -- barring a huge shift in the way the game is officiated -- it will never disappear.

    Despite my hatred of diving, I'll never confuse divers with sissies (despite what I might say in the heat of the moment). The guy who dives, rolls around feigning an injury, then pops back up when the official has made his decision is not a pansy.

    Rather, the diver is a cheat, trying to gain an advantage within the rules as they are established. That's not an indictment on his toughness or lack thereof. It's something different altogether.

    Regardless of how one feels about diving, the implication that only soccer players do it is hilarious.

    A quick search on YouTube will yield some fabuolously heinous fakery from the stick-and-puck pros. And not just from the "Europeans" (as some neanderthals will have you believe), but from Canadian-as-maple-syrup compatriots.

    Mike Ribeiro is the most obvious example, but

    and Canadian royalty
    have all been known to hit the ice rather easily.

    And that's just scratching the surface.

    Again, like soccer divers, these are extreme examples that don't reflect the overall nature of the athletes in the sport. Yet why is it kosher to label all soccer players as equivalents of their worst (or softest) particpants, while not doing the same for every other sport in which physical contact is a regular occurrence?

    I know that despite my writing damn near a novel on the subject, my words won't even have the slightest effect on the negative perception about the sport that we North American soccer fans have had to defend against since we were born.

    But I did get it off my chest.

    I'll get back to my egg nog now.


    Post-script: I did not write the above piece to denigrate hockey. I'm actually a lifelong Leafs fan and former Mississauga IceDogs season ticket holder who enjoys the fast pace and, yes, inherent violence that the sport is known for.

    Being a Canadian who grew up loving soccer, I've been challenged countless times to defend the sport vis a vis hockey, which I think is a rather silly exercise in that the games are vastly different and both bring something great to the table.

    Basically, the above piece was born out of frustration, stemming from a lifetime of derision coming from (mostly) hockey-only fans who parrot the tripe they hear from Don Cherry types who, to be frank, just don't know what the hell they're talking about.

    At least I know I've got a sympathetic ear (eye?) here.

    Rudi Schuller contributes Toronto FC, MLS, and Canadian national team content to the 24th Minute. He is MLSsoccer.com's beat writer for all things concerning Canada's men's national teams, and he has spent time as soccer editor for Reuters' online publications. He has also contributed to Goal.com and other soccer media. Follow Rudi on Twitter, @RudiSchuller.

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