The "Other" Football

Watching America Watching the World Cup

by Tobias Peterson

19 June 2006


Like many American children, I grew up playing soccer. Festooned in neon jerseys, oversized knee pads, and socks that would often stretch over our knees, the games that I and my fellow “midget league” players took part in more likely resembled a manic recess at clown college than an actual sporting event. Still, I look back fondly on those days as youth well spent—the crisp fall air, the enthusiasm of our parents (tempered to civility by league regulations), and, best of all, those ubiquitous orange slices that waited for us at halftime and at the end of every game.

And I’m not alone in these memories. These days, soccer is an almost expected extra-curricular for kids in this country, alongside piano lessons and little league. It’s so popular, in fact, that an entire demographic — the nation’s “soccer moms” — has been coined by its practice. And yet, somehow, the sport gets lost along the way. Like braces or acne, soccer is a childhood experience that most of us outgrow. While still a viable varsity sport in many high schools, few colleges are known for their soccer teams. In the world of American sports, frankly, soccer remains a kid’s game. Taking its place instead are football, basketball, and baseball, which dwarf soccer in television ratings, school budgets, advertising dollars, and just about any other measure of cultural popularity you care to devise.

So what gives? What social, cultural, or even pubescent forces are at work in this country that mandates such a drastic shift in attentions and practices? As the FIFA World Cup plays out in Germany this month, the disparity between American interest in “soccer” and the rest of the world’s passion for “football” is felt now more keenly than ever. Of course, Americans might have come to the same conclusions by comparing the paltry pro soccer league stateside (the MLS) with any of the European or South American professional leagues. The MLS, which puts on games to enthusiastic but miniscule crowds, is where the old pros of Europe and elsewhere come to retire, or where the young stars of tomorrow hone their skills before leaving the country for greener pitches. By comparison, a league like the English Premiership features multi-million dollar talent on display in stadiums that are venerated like churches by the throngs of rabid followers that pack them.

Despite this relative lack of enthusiasm, though, the US has managed to field a formidable team for the cup this year. Ranked fifth by FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international body that governs the sport) going into the tournament, the US (as of this writing) now figure to make an impact in the tournament, where before they were merely speed bumps for other countries. Perhaps that kind of accomplishment explains the June 5 cover of Sports Illustrated, on which four of the US players appear, above one-name captions that seek to cement their popularity the way that international stars like Ronaldo, Zidane, or Beckham are known. Still, while, “Beaz”, “Landon”, “Gooch”, and “Bobby” might mean something to the more ardent fans of US soccer, they could just as easily refer to the cast of characters in the next Harry Potter novel as far as the majority of Americans are concerned.

This does not necessarily bemoan the crisis of apathy that grips the country, however. That’s a cause that many defenders of the sport have taken up in the past and will doubtless continue in light of the World Cup. Instead, it’s merely to wonder why more Americans aren’t down. Consider, for example, the spectacle involved. There is simply nothing bigger in the world of sports than this tournament. Not the Olympics, not the NBA Finals, not even the Super Bowl. In fact, it might be helpful to imagine that the Super Bowl was held every day for a month, in every country around the world simultaneously. Only then would you be approaching the scale of the event. In a country of SUVs, double Whoppers, and massive Hollywood blockbusters, one would think that the size of the Cup alone would be enough to draw interest.

And then there are the rivalries to consider. The World Cup is one of the few sporting events that has the attraction of recapitulating real, international tensions, conflicts, and histories, but without the senseless violence (okay, without as much violence) of armed conflict. When England plays Argentina or Germany, for example, these games aren’t just about what happens on the field. The Falklands, or World Wars I and II, are on the tip of fans’ tongues. This might explain why English officials this year were urging fans to refrain from singing “Two World Wars and one World Cup!” while in Germany to celebrate both their military and sporting triumphs over that country in the same taunt. It also explains the ecstatic reactions of Senegal’s fans when, in 1994, their team shocked the defending champs France 1-0. Not only was this a tremendous upset on the field, it offered a way for Senegal to redeem themselves against their former colonizers. Perhaps if the US and Iran meet in this World Cup, things will change. Until then, however, the historical relevance of these games remains lost on most Americans.

Which brings to mind perhaps the bleakest explanation for the lack of interest stateside: things like history doesn’t really matter to us. Instead, Americans take their cues from a unilateral, self-involved, ahistorical, and near-sighted administration. Why should Americans care what goes on in the rest of the world, the argument might go, when they’ve clearly gotten by with doing their own thing for so long? Of course the answers to such a question are as obvious as they are obviously elusive. Granted, the US did manage to host the World Cup in 1994, an event that was heralded as the American introduction to the rest of the football playing world. Sadly, though, little has been done since. Though all the games this year will be nationally televised, either on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN 2, the windfall of attention that the Cup was supposed to bring has since dissipated, leaving us with stories about the World Cup either buried in the recesses of American sports pages, or relegated to the third segment of Sportscenter.

Perhaps the game is simply not “American” enough to draw a crowd in this country. In a world of highlight reels, slam dunk contests, and sponsored bits that feature football players getting “jacked up” (read semi-concussed by their opponents), soccer, known as the “beautiful game”, is sure to struggle in its bid for US fans. The matches are also generally low-scoring, forcing fans to focus more on the athletic skill of the players and the strategies of their coaches rather than the payoff of scored goals. What’s worse, there are fewer opportunities to inject corporate advertising into the sport. With a running clock and no time-outs, the matches don’t offer the same pauses that allow beer companies to shove bikini teams in consumers’ faces. And less sponsorship means less money, which, in America anyway, means less visibility.

America’s being out of step with the rest of the world with respect to soccer (we don’t even call it by the same name for Pete’s sake) is perhaps understood best as a reflection of cultural priorities more than athletic taste. While Americans go about busying themselves with padding, bats, and the latest Air Jordans, millions around the world are instantly and freely disposed to their sport of choice. As any American who’s been overseas can attest, the real “football” can be played in any open space, with any roll-able object. As a result, the entire world becomes its playing field, as all the planet’s inhabitants become its participants. Truly, the World Cup pays homage to such a phenomenon, reminding Americans how sport can offer hope for community in the face of so much difference. Americans can but lament the one holdout, a country too preoccupied with its own goings-on to join in the game.

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