Over on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the biggest sporting event in the world is happening right now. There could be a match on right now as you are reading this article. I know most of you, if not the vast majority, know that the FIFA World Cup is being played overseas in Germany this month. However, how many of you have watched a game live on television? I would even consider it a victory for the sport if you watched it on tape delay or on a re-broadcast. It is fairly safe to assume that, although the popularity is growing ever so slightly in the past few years, that many of you can answer those previous questions with resounding indifference to the sport of soccer. In fact, I will again assume that more of you tuned into a local baseball team’s games rather than catch the U.S.-Italy match over the weekend, what some considered to be the most important soccer game in U.S. history.
This revelation led me to do some serious thinking. Even before the beginning of the World Cup, there was already talk about how the United States has not come to embrace the game of football, as it is known everywhere else in the world. Our football is not “the” football anywhere else except for our own soil. Can a game that is loved by so many people around the world never reach heights in America comparible to our major 3 (American football, basketball, baseball.) financially or in popularity among fans? The short answer seems to be no, but there is more to this question than the answer itself.
For the longest time, some of the United States’ most die-hard of football fans have long wondered what it would take for the sport to gain popularity and acceptance in the United States. Some suggested the emergence of a big American star to market. Others believed that only international success could bring it. Many also believe that in order to make the game’s appeal rise here in the U.S., we need to change the game to make it more friendly to the American audience. I think that all of those solutions fail to address the problem that I believe soccer has here in the United States. For years, they have said that soccer is not ready for big time popularity here, and that soccer just isn’t marketable here because it’s not our game.
They say that soccer can never integrate into our culture. But we are proven every day that conjecture is completely without base for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, soccer remains one of the most popular games in terms of youth participation. Youth leagues are all over the nation; we consistently see all-star teams and youth tournaments. My sister has a few trophies in her room displayed that she’s won at youth leagues. Remember, they don’t call them “baseball moms,” do they? Secondly, people are tuning into the World Cup. Not as much as have watched the NBA finals, but they are slowly coming around to the soccer on television. Third, the MLS grows everyday. A league that many initial critics believed would flouder in financial ruin has seen a decent fan base and some interested outsiders. Television has even begun to pick up local broadcasts and coverage of their clubs.
Where the problem lies, to me, is not within the realm of soccer itself. Soccer has the problem, all right… it’s us as a sports society. We are not willing to accept soccer, never letting it get into our thoughts. Well, the majority of us, anyways. We scold European soccer fans as “hooligans” who are over-emotional and unrealistic when it comes to their support of a side. We don’t like scoreless ties, because as the popular addage states, “ties are like kissing your sister.” Many times people feel as though they’ve wasted 90 minutes when a team doesn’t put up points on a board. We marvel at 100 point sides in basketball, when a baseball team scores five runs in an inning, or even when we are blessed to see “The Greatest Show on Turf” grace an NFL football field. But a 0-0 tie, that’s near blasphemy.
Soccer is not the problem, our athletic cultural condition leads us not to like the sport. There’s plenty of reasons why this occurs.
1.) As a nation, we cannot claim to have “invented” the sport.
Call it an air of arrogance, but much like cars or farm produce, they say “support American prodcuts.” I believe that ideal has transferred itself to the bias against soccer. Soccer is the one game that we cannot have any claim to. We did not invent it. It’s not an American creation, not like baseball or basketball or American football. We do not trace the sport to a field in Oklahoma i nthe late 1800’s, or to a YMCA in a local town. To us, that’s as good as foreign, and we cannot accept that. It’s not of our minds, so it’s automatically a “stupid sport” to most of us.
2.) We have never had any international success in the sport.
That actually could be negated, except that we’ve had no success internationally in terms of actual soccer competition. You can see it for yourselves. We make it to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002 and everyone acts as though our side was a little baby climbing out of the playpen and taking their first unassisted steps. The United States, especially within the last 10 to 15 years, have seen an influx of home-grown talent. Names who should be household names and personalities. Reyna, Lalas, Wynalda, Donovan, Beasley, Keller… you don’t know these names, do you? These are among some of the best that our country has had to offer. And with the exception of Beasley, most have seen some time playing abroad in European super leagues. We haven’t won Championships, we can’t even claim to be among the world’s elite in the sport. People are turned off because we do not have the chance or have never in the past dominated the sport like we have others.
3.) We have yet to find the big transcendent star in soccer.
England has David Beckham. Brazil has Ronaldihno, Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo. They men, along with others for their nations, have grown bigger than their sport in their native lands. In some cases, worldwide fame has followed. But the U.S. hasn’t had that one player that has done that yet. We’ve had great names come through our nation’s programs, good soccer players. But they don’t grace the back covers of the New York Post or Star. David Beckham has had more news in those publications than Landon Donovan or Brian McBride. We have yet to find one, who can carry the sport on its back and rise above the muddled U.S. sports fan and claim greatness.
4.) We like things big, including sports.
The NCAA basketball tournament. The World Series or the NBA Finals. The Super Bowl might be the single biggest sports day in the nation. Fact is, we like our sports big and loud. Soccer is neither, and that has stunted its growth in the U.S. 0-0 draws are common, and if no one scores for 90 minutes, its a hard fought contest. Except here, the attitude towards that result would be more along the lines of “you couldn’t score a single goal in 90 minutes.” Unless you’re a die hard, you rarely hear someone say “that was an awesome 3-4 scheme against the opposition’s running back” in the NFL. They want to see offense, they want scores to be high. Hockey isn’t a factor unless they are playing 9-7 games. Even then, you’re hard-pressed to find ratings here. Soccer to most is nothing more than “guys who run around a field kicking a ball,” and it never grows much more than that.
Unfortunately, you don’t know what your missing. Soccer players are among the most highly-skilled athletes in the world. They have incredible footwork and impeccible stamina, two things that are lost in the “bigger, stronger, faster” society we live in. Some soccer fans are out of control, but the passion for the game is undeniable. Have you ever seen players with so much conviction for their country than in soccer. In the land of NBA players feeling bothered by the thought of representing their countries, these soccer players do it, sometimes thanklessly and getting the blame when the game doesn’t end in their favor. People claim a lack of excitement, but in what other sport does four years of endless qualifying and competing lead to a week where, if you don’t play well, could end it all for you? In the Ivory Coast, a civil war is under truce right now because they wanted to be a nation together rooting for their World Cup squad to be successful in Germany. Can any other sport have such an impact socially?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I wish I did. All I can say for certain is that while others have tried to change the sport of soccer, I say that soccer is not the problem. Soccer does not have to conform to us, we should be embracing the world’s game. It’s a double-edged sword for us. We can’t get better until we learn to support and embrace osccer, but we won’t support and embrace the sport unless we get better. Oh when will this vicious cycle end?