Lampooning soccer has long been an American pastime. To its mostly unfunny critics, the sport is boring, unmanly, and foreign. “My son is not playing soccer,” bloviator Jim Rome once said. “I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball. Soccer is not a sport.”
There is, however, one inspired piece of U.S.-made satire that manages to mock soccer while also embracing the very thing it’s laughing at. Who’s behind this bit of comedic brilliance? Unsurprisingly, The Simpsons.
“The Cartridge Family,” which aired on Nov. 2, 1997, opens with a five-minute sequence that taps into our nation’s distrust of soccer’s seemingly slow pace, overexcited announcers, and exotic teams and players. As its title attests, the “The Cartridge Family” is mostly about guns. Mike Scully, a longtime Simpsons staffer, had pitched the idea a few years earlier, but it didn’t get greenlit until the series’ ninth season, his first as showrunner. For the episode to work, Homer needed a good reason to purchase a revolver. Naturally, the writers decided that the most direct path to firearm ownership was a soccer riot.
Penned by prolific scribe John Swartzwelder, the episode quickly establishes that it will be looking at soccer through an American lens.
The opening shot features onetime Monday Night Football crooner Hank Williams Jr. scorching the screen with a flaming soccer-ball-shaped brand and yelling, “Open wide for some soccer!” This kicks off a Harry Shearer–narrated ad for an upcoming match:
TV announcer: The Continental Soccer Association is coming to Springfield! It’s all here—fast-kickin’, low scorin’. And ties? You bet!
Bart: Hey Dad, how come you’ve never taken us to see a soccer game?
Homer: I … don’t know.
TV announcer: You’ll see all your favorite soccer stars. Like Ariaga! Ariaga II! Bariaga! Aruglia! And Pizzoza!
I’d venture that over the last 17 years, many American soccer fans have repeated those amazing mononyms—Ariaga! Ariaga II! Bariaga!—more than they’ve said the names Ronaldinho, Kaká, and Neymar.
Mike Scully claims that these fake players are based on real people. Scully and his brother Brian, who grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, spent much of the late 1970s gambling at the Hartford, Connecticut, jai alai fronton. “That’s what I was doing instead of going to college,” Scully says. The mysterious players—he swears Ariaga and Ariaga II existed—fascinated him, and two decades later he found a perfect way to pay tribute to his heroes.
As the TV announcer explains, this game is of the utmost importance, as it “will determine once and for all which nation is the greatest on earth: Mexico or Portugal.” Scully doesn’t recall receiving any immediate feedback from either country about its inclusion, probably because it took a while for new episodes to air abroad. “There would be a couple of years before they would be outraged,” he says.
The match itself is brimming with typically razor-sharp Simpsons humor. Of Springfield Stadium, Marge says, “It’s hard to believe this used to be an internment camp.” Instead of asking for a hot dog, Bart hails the paella man. Even Pelé shows up, receiving a sack of money to promote Crestfield Wax Paper. “The one joke I felt slightly guilty about,” says Scully, who at the time was completely unaware that the Brazilian legend has a reputation for being a corporate shill. (Also: In the DVD commentary, director Pete Michels says the referee is an animated version of Film Roman’s soccer-loving janitor.)
As he describes the action, play-by-play man Kent Brockman sounds painfully bored. A high camera angle—one that makes the animated players look like ants in formation—mimics the primitive broadcast techniques of the 1990s. “They had tried to sell soccer to America several times as the world’s most exciting sport and every time it came here, as a nation we were kind of just lulled to sleep,” Scully says. “We just didn’t get it.”
But the rest of the world did, which is why a Latino announcer repeats Brockman’s exact call much more robustly: “Halfback passes to center, back to wing, back to center, center holds it! Holds it! Holds it!”
“That kind of sums it up,” Scully says, before laughing and launching into his own rendition of, “Holds it! Holds it!”
At that point in the episode, the irritated crowd—“I can’t bear this any longer, I’m leaving!” says Sideshow Mel—has seen enough. The mayhem begins when a perturbed Moe puts Flanders in a headlock. Lenny punches Principal Skinner. Barney, enraged at the sight of spilled Duff Beer, knocks over dozens of fans like bowling pins, before Groundskeeper Willie and his band of Scottish hooligans start beating people with blunt objects. As Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie escape the stadium, they pass a smiling valet who’s in the middle of retrieving a fan’s car, which is on fire. “One of our favorite moments,” Scully says.
With Springfield burning and Marge apoplectic, Homer rigs up a burglar alarm at 742 Evergreen Terrace. Imagined by Swartzwelder, the Rube Goldberg-ian contraption consists of a stack of books, a fishing rod, a flashlight, a magnifying glass, an alarm clock, and a goldfish. When that fails, and after finding out that “Ex-Con Home Security” is out of the family’s price range, Homer settles on buying a gun.
The beginning of “The Cartridge Family” may be overshadowed by Homer’s ensuing adventure as a reckless armed man, but it’s still hilarious. Scully remembers that at the initial read-through, Swartzwelder’s script drew huge laughs. “Particularly the soccer sequences,” Scully says. “The cast was so funny. Everyone got it.”
Over the years, Scully’s opinion of televised soccer has changed. “I think that television has done a great job now of capturing the excitement of the sport that they didn’t do before or they weren’t able to do before,” he says.
When it comes to fútbol, The Simpsons has also come a long way since 1997. In March, the show dedicated an entire episode to Homer’s exploits as a soccer referee. Exuberant Spanish-language announcer Andrés Cantor even guest-starred. “I still can’t believe the yellow and red cards don’t stand for mustard and ketchup,” Homer says at one point.
That line isn’t nearly as inspired as any soccer joke in “The Cartridge Family,” but what is? “It was just one of those episodes where everything worked right,” Scully says. “And that doesn’t always happen.”
Also in Slate: Alan Siegel explains how the NRA misunderstood The Simpsons episode “The Cartridge Family.”