As a fan of Newcastle United and American sport I was amused and bemused yesterday by NUFC keeper Tim Krul's shootout-stopping heroics to keep Holland in the World Cup, and the subsequent tut-tutting in the world media and tweet-o-sphere over his in-your-face gamesmanship. Trash-talking of higher octane is a centerpiece of pro sport in the US, and soccer is hardly more genteel in other ways, for example, the presence of guys who bite other guys. American sport has only one firm unwritten rule about trash-talking: Back it up. And did Krul ever.
In a sport where faking life-threatening injury at the slightest touch (or none at all) is basic strategy, it's difficult for an American fan to take otherwise respected news outlets like The Guardian seriously when they state Krul's antics toed the line of cheating. For my taste I'd like to see more bravado and less cowardice in soccer. If the contact-heavy NFL, NBA or NHL tolerated the kind of Academy Award dramatics and post-hoc whining commonplace in soccer, our games would be 10 hours long and the field of play would look like Gettysburg. If you want to pick one thing that's hampering the rise of soccer in America, pick that, as the New York Times recently did.
What Krul did Saturday was the opposite of diving. Thrown into a ridiculous situation with overtones of gamesmanship in and of itself, instead of formulating a host of reasonable excuses for failure in his head, he looked it in the eye and said out loud, bring it on. It was especially endearing coming from a player whose boyish mien and figure don't exactly strike fear in the heart, at least on TV. Let's face it - if Krul raised his fists in a bar, he'd be as likely to get a pat on the head as a punch, right? But when he raised his voice on the field yesterday, he got respect from me, and I suspect down deep from many others, even the outwardly offended.
Over the past few days US soccer fans have been discussing a call from ESPN's bombastic-but-brainy Keith Olbermann to make American soccer more American. Olbermann didn't talk about the tolerance of gamesmanship in soccer, though he did brush the topic in cautioning the US to steer as far clear as possible from FIFA: "These human corruption machines make the IOC look like Doctors Without Borders." Olbermann wins few points for sensitivity, but make no mistake: Plenty of Americans who don't care for soccer were cheering his act. The part of the sport I find hardest to defend to those countrymen is the ground-writhing gamesmanship more offensive to the American spirit than Krul's over-acting in the other direction.
That's why, even though I was cheering for Costa Rica to win and uphold the CONCACAF cause, I'm glad for the success of Tim Krul's debut on soccer's biggest stage, and even gladder so much of America was watching, especially the newer and more casual fans raised on our native sports. They saw something they recognized in the Dutchman, and identified with, and maybe even loved.