Why is that soccer is often described in grand terms? E.g., it's a "beautiful game;" the "genius" of Messi; the "sublime excellence" of a Rooney header; the "boldness" of the Argentinian offense; the "bravery" of the American comeback against Slovenia; the "soul-expanding" experience of being in the stands at a good World Cup game. I especially hate when a goal is described as sublime. (Dude, I saw that goal; it was good, but it wasn't sublime). Why are words and descriptions like these so often applied to soccer and not basketball, football, or baseball?
It's a fair point. But before we tackle Marvel's characteristically irritable value judgment, let's think a little about where this grand style of soccer description comes from.
I blame the Brits--or really, the English. The vast bulk of American and indeed all Anglophone soccer commentary grows directly out of English roots; and English football came of age in a subtly but crucially different sporting culture. (Warning: flabby, Wikipedia-driven over-generalizations lie ahead).
No doubt this old genteel tradition has taken quite a bludgeoning in the 20th century. Unlike cricket, which maintained a distinction between amateur and professional competitors all the way until the 1960s, English association football accepted professionalism in 1885. The central tenets of the old aristocratic credo are long dead -- I don't think many football fans on either side of the Atlantic would insist on the importance of individual dignity over tangible success, or emphasize gentlemanly fair play rather than the need to win at all cost. (Although the intense moralism that attaches itself to certain strains of anti-cheating discourse -- complaints about international soccer's referee-baiting culture, for example, or the Thierry Henry handball scandal -- show that it's not totally gone.)
Yet on the whole the residue of the genteel tradition remains much thicker in Britain than in the USA. And one of its chief consequences, I think, is the interest in rendering sporting judgments that involve aesthetics as much as functionality, descriptions that speak to the genteel connoisseur, not just the self-interested man of affairs. (A related effect is soccer's differentiation between the totality of a game and its outcome -- between "the match" and "the result," a linguistic distinction unknown in American sports.)
You can see the imprint of this attitude of aristocratic connoisseurship all over British soccer adjectives: a team that is playing well is not on a roll or red-hot but "in form" (not "in function"). Messi, Rooney, Pele and the rest are "sublime", "ingenious", "beautiful," and "brave"; only occasionally do they seem "dominant," "unstoppable," "gutsy," or "clutch." Sometimes the genteel connotation is even more direct; the ultimate soccer assessment of a player's value is, after all, his "class."
Does this make any sense to you guys? It seems more or less right to me, but I'd love to hear more educated opinions, British or American.
In any case, Marvel obviously regards such aesthetically engaged soccer commentary as obnoxiously self-important, or somehow inappopriate; I think it's one of the most delightful things about the sport. In this sense I suppose he's a truer democrat than I am. But since when is extravagant, even aristocratic aesthetic contemplation a bad thing? I'm all for it, and if I have time later today I'll be back with a little list of my favorite Anglo-soccer vocabulary words.