Roger Bennett: I'm Roger Bennett on American Fiasco. It's not the only podcast that I host because along with my great friend, Michael Davis, a fellow bald, I host a show called Men in Blazers. It's also about soccer. In fact, our unofficial slogan is soccer, America's sport of the future, as it has been since 1972. We came up with that slogan in one of the very first podcasts that we broadcast, really based on the hilarious expectation that soccer is forever tomorrow's sport in America.
Forever the sport of the future, always predicted, despite its history of boom and bust, to be the great overnight sensation that's going to sweep the country. While Everybody is waiting for that overnight sensation, slowly, steadily, while no one was watching, soccer has grown to become a major, major sport with a huge demographic following every single hero, villain, ill-judged hair cut and neck tattoo.
When I first came here in the 1990s, Americans were not just inured to soccer's charms. They actively, passionately, continuously love to hate on it. I was always fascinated by that hate, its contours, its motivations, to me to be candid, they always almost protested too much.
For this episode, if you'll allow me, we're going to take a journey into the hate. Hit pause for a second on the story of the 1998 American team and talk with a remarkable 2018 American, Dan Katz, aka Big Cat, a gent with a huge megaphone in the sports world. He co-hosts the podcast Pardon My Take which is a phenomenon, a juggernaut, and part of the fast-growing online Empire Barstool Sports.
Big Cat: Well, I am the one you need to convert. If people can follow my lead where it's almost-- I have a little side piece and it's soccer, and I never will get married to soccer, but I'll flirt with it and maybe go out to drinks with it every now and then. Maybe when everyone's away, you'll pop on a little game, a little footy match, and cheat on the real sports.
Roger: You've heard Big Cat in our first episode, but I really believe it's worth hearing the rest of our conversation because Big Cat does what Big Cat does. He pushes buttons, he pushes me, and I found he really illuminates the issue in a way only he can. Let's do it. This is American Fiasco.
Big Cat: All right. I have an idea of why you invited me as well that I think will help the discussion.
Roger: Go on.
Big Cat: I think I'm the epitome of the American sports fan.
Roger: You are.
Big Cat: I think the reason why you invited me on here is because I am the bridge from the truly Neanderthal American fan who says soccer is a sport that doesn't even deserve a second of our time, and the guy who decides that he's a diehard Manchester United fan and goes to the bar at 8:00 AM even though he grew up in Long Island. I am the bridge between those two because I actually do enjoy soccer.
I also enjoy making fun of soccer so it's like I am torn right down the middle, and I understand the game a little bit more than I did. I like the game and I like watching the game, but I still like to make my jokes because at the end of the day, football is far superior, basketball is far superior, baseball is far superior.
Roger: Big Cat, just so I understand. I love this. You are the symbol. You are the-
Big Cat: I am.
Roger: I am the nation and the nation is me.
Big Cat: I am the one you need. [laughs]
Roger: I want to get back in time with you, to Young Cat.
Big Cat: Okay.
Roger: It's a Little Cat.
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: Do you remember, Little Cat?
Big Cat: Yes, barely.
Roger: Can you put yourself back in touch with Little Cat.
Big Cat: Yes, barely.
Roger: To kick this off, just tell me your name and where you grew up.
Big Cat: Okay. My name is Dan Katz. I grew up on the East Coast, but my family is from Chicago and Chicago is home.
Roger: You did grow up on the East Coast?
Big Cat: Yes, I told you that before?
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: Where on the East Coast?
Big Cat: Outside Boston. I've told you that.
Big Cat: Newton. I've told you this. This is starting to get-
Roger: Which high school?
Big Cat: Newton North.
Roger; Newton, so you were Newton North. Were there any soccer fans in your school? Newton Mass?
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: When you were a kid?
Big Cat: Yes, of course. Soccer is a popular [unintelligible 00:04:57] sport. It has been for a long time. I don't know, I can't speak to the '80s in the '70s but in the '90s, that it definitely was a popular [unintelligible 00:05:04] sport. The problem is it always competes with football.
You play soccer in the fall, and it competes with football. When there's multiple sports and you can play a bunch of different sports, why would you play soccer, the sport no one really cares about? I just wasn't a big soccer guy growing up. Soccer really came to me late.
Roger: What status did the soccer lover have in Newton North?
Big Cat: Well, it wasn't all the way down. There's definitely always been a feeling that soccer fans are a little-- They're definitely lower than everyone else. Lower than basketball, or football, or baseball. There's definitely that feel and that vibe that has always been around in America.
Roger: Did that old phrase, those who can do and those who can't become a teacher?
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: Was it like if you can play a QB [unintelligible 00:05:50] you play that sport?
Big Cat: Right.
Roger: If you can't, you play lacrosse, and if you can't, and then you keep you counting then you become-- You can be the captain of the soccer team?
Big Cat: By the time I was 12-15 years old, we had already had the '94 World Cup. We had already had that big push, so soccer was a little bit more accepted. I was never really
kind of a feeling of a subculture or anything. It was just-
Roger: The RC Cola?
Big Cat: Yes, exactly. It's the off-brand sport.
Roger: Jack Kemp, former great Buffalo Bill.
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: Average Buffalo Bill. Now, he became a congressman. In 1983, when US Soccer was trying to lure the World Cup to America, something motivated him to run onto the floor of Congress, your governing body, a place of sense and rationality.
Big Cat: Oh, yes.
Roger: He said, "A distinction should be made that football is democratic capitalism whereas soccer is a European socialist sport."
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: Why is it the root of that? It's almost like they protest of too much, Big Cat?
Big Cat: Yes, I would think that's fair [crosstalk] but it's during the Cold War and you don't want to let culture from outside come into America. There's a fear out there.
Roger: I fear of what?
Big Cat: There's a fear of whatever it is that you guys love to do across the pond. It's like, "That's not us. We're not soccer." If all these European countries love soccer, we don't want that, just keep that away. We like our cold beers. We like our hard-hitting football.
Roger: There's also something about having Belgians, Chileans, and God forbid, Frenchmen run rings around America.
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: Also, America in the '90s, its self image doesn't do number two in the world.
Big Cat: Yes, yes. To be totally honest, and this is probably revealing a little bit of our own insecurities--
Roger: Let's go there.
Big Cat: Yes, our own insecurities as Americans, we suck at it. I don't really want to watch the sport we suck at.
Roger: That's an American [unintelligible 00:07:53] .
Big Cat: It's an American feeling, but I don't think that that's ever going to go away because we want to be the best. I think the best way to describe it is every kid probably had the same exact experience growing up. When you have video games, I don't know how big video games are in England, I don't know, but sports and video games--
Roger: They're between enormous and the biggest.
Big Cat: All right. Madden, right? Playing Madden, what would you do as a kid when you're playing Madden? You would go in, and you would make the team so that all of your guys are 99, overall, and you would see how bad you could beat the other team. That's a feeling that you just have and that's the Dream Team come to life.
It's basically screwing with a video game and saying, "What if we made every single player on this team the best possible player, and then put them out there and see what they can do to everyone else?" Watching that is fascinating. How can you say that's not fascinating?
Roger: Can you describe that? What's that like to-- by the way, I've never understood watching the Dream-- I've never had the pleasure of watching the Dream Team.
Big Cat: Oh, well, the pleasure watching the Dream Team is you get the best-- It would be like putting Messi and Ronaldo and all these guys all on the same team, but they happen to also be from the same country. It is a historical thing to watch all these guys play together. If you follow any-- I was only nine years old, but if you watch any of the stuff, the documentaries that have come out, the practices that the Dream Team had, where the team is playing itself, that's stuff that you can talk about forever.
When you have Michael Jordan play against Magic Johnson and Larry Bird playing against Charles Barkley, and then going out and just dominating everyone, that's the most American thing in the world.
Roger: Americans like total destruction.
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: You also like the Miracle on Ice?
Big Cat: Yes. Well, that's Cold War too. That also had political implications, but yes, we like to be underdogs that can win. Underdogs that can lose, no one likes that. That's not fun, right? [laughs] Basically, we've gotten to this whole entire conversation has been that if America can't win, that we don't want to play. That sounds so spoiled, but you know what? I'm going to stand up for that because I think that that's the right mindset.
Roger: I cam to America in the '90s and I was really struck by how football-- soccer, it was barely on the nation's radar back then. Do you remember this time?
Big Cat: Barely. The 1994 Word Cup was the first time I think anyone had said the word soccer if you look back and we probably pronounced it incorrectly. It couldn't be formed on our tongues.
Roger: Was it like GIF? Like the word GIF?
Big Cat: Yes. Exactly. GIF, GIF.
Roger: You pronounce it soccer.
Big Cat: Yes, soccer. You got to really lean into the R.
Roger: It ranked below the NFL. Would you say I'm [unintelligible 00:10:32] it?
Big Cat: I'd say it ranked below the NFL, I'd say ranked below all college sports, every sport you could imagine.
Roger: Would it be fair to say it came somewhere in between ultimate Frisbee, devil sticks, and competitive eating?
Big Cat: Yes. It was probably right ahead of devil sticks, right below lacrosse.
Roger: Soon, devil sticks fans we took you down.
Big Cat: I remember opening Sports Illustrated for kids and seeing those guys with the crazy hair and they were like, "What's going on here?" I was intrigued by it. Those guys, Tony Meola, it was Alexi Lalas and Colby Jones. Is that Cobi Jones? Is that Cobi Jones? Am I saying it right? Tab Ramos. I don't know who else I can come up-- Wynalda, I don't know who else I can come up with off the top of my head.
Roger: When you saw the ginge, the dreadlocks and the mullet, you were like, "That's the future."
Big Cat: the dreadlocks. You're right. Yes, that's the future.
Roger: You're just like, "I'm at a circus. That's a freak show. Interesting. Moving on."
Big Cat: It was interesting and you wanted to watch more, but at no point did I think it was going to be the future.
Roger: Explain that to me.
Big Cat: I can easily explain it to you.
Roger: I'm really going for it.
Big Cat: Easily. You make the joke on your show all the time, the sport of the future. I don't want to be told what the sport of the future is. You see it now with e-sports. People will say e-sports is about to take over. There's not going to be sports in 20 years. It's just going to be all people playing video games and us watching it. Don't tell me what I'm going to like in 20 years. Don't tell me what is the sport of the future, why soccer is so--
If it's so great, I'll watch it, but don't tell me that it's going to take over the world and give me all these stories about how everyone's playing soccer and football is dying and baseball's dying. I don't want to hear that. Don't tell me that soccer is going to be the sport of the future. Don't tell me that it's going to be the thing that the global game. Why do so many people watch it? Why do Americans not-- I don't want to hear it. I love what I love. Don't try to tell me what I need to watch.
Roger: Don't take away my meat and potato.
Big Cat: Yes. We can't be told what to do. There's obviously been a push and a PR campaign of the sport of the future and all this stuff. It has to be natural. You can't push that on people. You can't shove it down people's throats. They have to naturally come. I naturally came to loving soccer and that happened through its own way. It happened through betting on Word Cup in 2014 and having a ton of goals.
It was happenstance where I love to bet overs. There were a ton of overs at the beginning of the game, and I said, "Hey, I'll give this soccer thing a try." If we go back to the sport of the future talk, just the process feels so, so long and labored. I have friends that are diehard soccer fans. Every year, they tell me, "Well, this is the best US team. We beat some South American team in a friendly."
Roger: We beat Antigua and Barbuda at the same time.
Big Cat: I have a running joke on Twitter that this is the game that's going to make soccer big in America. When they draw Portugal in the World Cup, this is the game that will flip it for everyone where everyone will say, "Aha, we're finally good at soccer." Obviously, that's never going to happen, but that's what it feels like soccer fans always saying, "We beat Mexico Dos a Cero in Columbus, Ohio. This is the game that's going to make soccer big in America." Probably not, so stop telling us that.
It's a hype. The hype gets too much just constantly saying that this is the tipping point. At some point, it's the boy who cried wolf. If soccer is going to be the biggest sport, and this is the tipping point for it to be the biggest, when is it going to happen because we've been hearing it for 20 years now? Again, I love soccer.
Roger: Before we jump back in, in this conversation, Big Cat and I talk about whether America can win the World Cup. Some of you might start yelling at your pod machines right now, but the US women's team, they've won three bloody Word Cups, produced a litany of the greatest players to ever take the field from Mia Hamm to Julie Foudy and Carli Lloyd. Next summer, they'll defend the women's World Cup in France.
Big cat and I are talking about American men losing because well, American Fiasco, it's about the US men's national team and their self-destruction in 1998. They didn't deserve nor did they receive a Wheaties box. Back to our conversation. The Americans, they don't just not care about soccer. Here's what I want to get to, Big Cat. They don't just not care about with it. Back then, especially in the '90s, they actively seemed to hate it.
Big Cat: Yes, yes.
Roger: Why is it?
Big Cat: We couldn't figure out, "So you're saying you don't use your hands?" It was that feeling like, "What is this sport where everyone runs around with little shin pads on?"
Roger: That's what I'm trying to understand, why, why, why?
Big Cat: I feel like the answer that always is given is the lack of scoring. It's a little bit of a cop-out, but I think there is some truth to it because you can watch a soccer game forever and no one will score. It's painful to watch and you say, "Why are there not goals? America needs scoring. Chicks, dig the long ball." That's the saying in baseball. We want scoring, we want big plays, we want big hits, we're Americans.
I also think it's just a lack of understanding how the game works and how to watch the game properly. When you don't really understand the nuances, it's almost like having someone from England watch a baseball game and not understanding what pitch you're going to throw in an 0-2 count, or how you're going to want to try to make the batter chase.
Roger: You've got to bean him.
Big Cat: Right. You know what I mean? There's intricacies to a game that if you don't fully understand it, you're like, "I don't really want to watch this."
Roger: Think the rest of the world lives for this game.
Big Cat: Yes, I know it's crazy. I don't know what you guys see in it.
Roger: Not America.
Big Cat: No one can tackle. These tackles, you tackle, if you slide into someone, you get kicked out of the game.
Roger: A lack of violence.
Big Cat: Yes, a little bit of a lack of violence, a little bit. One thing we haven't really touched on is the fact that you can tie in soccer, which is the most un-American thing in the world. The most un-American thing, the fact that you can tie in soccer.
Roger: What's a tie to you?
Big Cat: A tie is brutal. A tie, the fact that you can tie after playing an entire game makes no sense, and no other sport-- in America, the only other sport that has it is football and that's after an overtime. If you look, it happens maybe once every three years or so. A tie in football becomes almost a celebration. I root for ties in football because it's funny. It's basically saying, "How the heck could you guys not figure out a winner here? It's a joke that you've played football for four hours and couldn't figure out a winner."
Roger: So it seems like a weakness?
Big Cat: Yes, absolutely. You got to have a winner.
Roger: Also, it's not the process that you appreciate ultimately. The outcome factors in.
Big Cat: Yes, absolutely. You have to win it. Part of the reason it's boring is because people don't really understand it and you don't understand the beauty in a buildup to a goal. For the longest time I didn't understand that. Then when you start watching the superior products and you start to understand the game and the nuances and the fact that controlling the ball in the midfield and passing it back and forth is not just laziness, they're actually building to something, it becomes a lot more enjoyable to watch.
Roger: What you're saying is it's a very odd sport in that the wins and losses are not just wins and losses. Ultimately, they're playing for the future of the status of the sport and in your eyes. Just summarize for me so I understand. American sports, the values that they hold, you've named one. You like scoring.
Big Cat: Scoring.
Roger: You like violence.
Big Cat: Winning. That's the big one, winning. We need to be the best because when I'm watching MLS or I'm watching, whatever it is, whatever league you want to watch, pick it, America's not the best. Maybe that's the key.
Roger: Without the American winning, it's like sex without an orgasm.
Big Cat: Yes, exactly. You're edging. You're constantly edging. Maybe we need to get FIFA to let us-- well, no, FIFA has actually never done anything corrupt, so they won't-- no way they could rig that. We'll have to find an organization, a worldwide soccer organization that can be bought.
Roger: They would be willing to give us a footballing orgasm nationally collectively.
Big Cat: Yes, yes, exactly. Tell me when we find that.
Roger: Essentially, it's boring, but part of the reason it's boring is because it doesn't end in American victory. I have to say, there is something that affronts the American sporting sensibility about being mediocre.
Big Cat: Right, it's disgusting. I don't want to watch mediocre. We don't spend time watching minor leagues or second level. We want to watch the best. When we are not the best, we have very little interest in it. I'll be honest with you, it's not just the '90s, it's still today. It's still a feeling of-- I know this sounds, I'm putting my hand up saying it is very insecure, very immature to say, "If we're not the best we don't want to play this game."
I understand the ugly American thing, but that's fine. That's fine. As long as you own it. I think if I sit here and tell you, "Roger, if I can't win I'm not playing," you have to at least respect that I'm being open about it. I'm not really a sore sport if tell you I'm a sore sport beforehand.
Roger: Flip the game board then.
Big Cat: Yes, I don't care, right.
Roger: Until they win, that's what it's going to take? America winning.
Big Cat: Yes, it's America has to either win, or there needs to be a superstar dynamic, charismatic American soccer player who can captivate the world, and then we'd buy-in. If we had the LeBron James, if we had the Tom Brady, if we had that guy who was that good at soccer and could compete on a world stage and he was American, then you would have the change. I know you're going to say the Golden Boy, Pulisic, but I mean, he plays midfield, you need the goal scorer.
Roger: Is it fair to say the last great measure of American exceptionalism is just hating on soccer?
Big Cat: Yes, it definitely feels like hating on soccer makes you more of an American in some respects. It's almost in my DNA as an American to hate on soccer.
Roger: Big cat, you put a man on the moon.
Big Cat: Yes.
Roger: You put a Starbucks on every corner.
Big Cat: We could win a World Cup?
Big Cat: I don't think so, though. If the US could be good, I would be a lot more-- I would have a lot less hate in my heart. That absolutely is true. Just be good and stop saying you're going to be good. Stop saying at some point, we got to change the system, we got to get the youth development. I'm sick of hearing about youth development and these soccer camps and all these things. Just be good. Just figure out a way to be good.
Roger: You win, America wins. You win two ways. You win with the Dream Team, Charles Barkley, elbowing an Angolan center in the head. You win dominance, virility, emasculating the opposition, grit.
Big Cat: Grit. Soccer is the least gritty sport. You have orange slices and Oreos at halftime. How could you be gritty when you do that? You're literally playing for the cookies. You realize that is the best definition of soccer in America, that to play soccer in America as a kid, they had to bribe you with cookies. They said, "If you play this sport, if you put on these silly shin guards, and run around and kick this ball for 60 minutes, we will give you some Oreos at the end." It sums it all up. [laughs] You had to bribe us.
Roger: That is the way that America can become better at football, more Oreos.
Big Cat: Yes, exactly.
Roger: I think we just cracked it.
Roger: Huge thanks to you Dan Katz. You can follow him on Twitter @BarstoolBigCat, listen to him on a daily basis on the podcast Pardon My Take. Oreos, I know, you're listening. Hook Big Cat up with a double stuf endorsement already, will you? In the meantime, our next episode of American Fiasco will pick up the story of the 1998 men's national team.
Announcer: American Fiasco is a production of WNYC Studios. Our team includes Joel Meyer, Emily Botein, Paula Szuchman, Derek John, Starlee Kine, Kegan Zema, Bernie [unintelligible 00:23:16], Eliza Lambert, Jamison York, Daniel Guillemette, Matt Boynton, Jonathan Williamson, Brad Feldman, Bea Aldrich, Jeremy Blum, Isaac Jones, and Sarah Sandbach. Joe Plourde is our technical director, Hannis Brown composed our original music.
Our theme music is by Big Red Machine, the collaboration between Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. For more about this story, including a timeline and more, go to fiascopodcast.com.
[00:24:02] [END OF AUDIO]
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