Something has always flummoxed me in sports. It’s the propensity of lesser informed fans and a few media blowhards to stand on high, reeking of tough-minded and righteous superiority, and label some professional athletes as "soft."
This is especially bothersome in American football. To call a professional football player (or college athlete, for that matter) "soft" is the very height of bird-brained nincompoopery. As my friend and former colleague Jean-Jacques Taylor (now at ESPN) used to say, "I’ve never met a professional football player who is soft, because they don’t exist."
If you’ve ever stood on the sideline of an NFL game, the brutal brew of speed and violence is nothing short of jaw-dropping. If you were to stand 40 yards from somebody, then both run as fast as you can to collide head-first, with as much violence and aggression as you could possibly muster, you’d have some inkling of what happens on every single play of NFL contests. You would, that is, after waking up in the hospital and completing a full debriefing from the assembly of surgeons and medical officials charged with putting you back together.
Repeat after me: there are no soft football players. Some players certainly are more comfortable with contact, and are better prepared from a physiological standpoint to deal with the violent contact. But since we’re all human, fallen and imperfect, we sometimes take shortcuts. And rather than saying all that, we fall back on clichés and banalities … such as this misguided chestnut about players being "soft."
How does this affect soccer? Glad you asked.
I keep seeing references to Camp Cupcake, a pejorative term referencing the U.S. national team’s ongoing camp in Carson, Calif. It’s a relatively new term, and I’d love to know who launched it. My guess: someone who knows their cupcakes. In other words, someone who couldn’t run a lap around their own house without stopping once or twice for a cool cup of water. And if they did manage to complete the small task, they would certainly reward themselves with a sugar- and butter-filled cupcake!
I honestly don’t see the point in using terms of derision to diminish what’s going on with Klinsmann’s camp. Yes, these are "B" team players, but this is a valuable exercise as Klinsmann attempts to build depth and more thoroughly cultivate the ideas and concepts he wants to integrate throughout all tiers of the personnel pool.
And let me say this: No journalist who has actually seen a soccer practice at this level has any excuse for using such a pejorative term. If they’ve seen a practice and still don’t understand how silly and misleading such a derogatory term is here, they should have their little media maker card stripped immediately and be forced to sit in a small room with a video loop of Edward R. Murrow preaching the tenets of proper reporting.
Here’s the deal: If you take away the full-speed collisions in soccer, take away the crunching tackles, take away the fact that professionals are heading and smacking a ball that is inflated to a level that makes it harder than any ball most weekend soccer players have ever dared to deal with … even if you take all that way, there’s still the conditioning issue. I can sum it up in two words: brutally tough.
It’s anything but soft. Conditioning at a professional level would make most of us pass out straight away. Subjected to the (more rigorous still) demands of conditioning exercises at the international level, most of us would vomit, pass out and then die. More or less in that order.
Seriously, to watch these guys go through the conditioning paces, to see the most supremely fit humans among us pushed even beyond their own extended comfort zones, working through the stress and the pain, is to understand the bottom line here: even if the best of the best in the U.S. player pool is elsewhere, these practices are no cupcake.