CAN US SOCCER GRIP US?
PREVIEWS
EXTRA TIME
ERIC ROSENBERG - Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The World Cup is over. Weeks have passed since team USA departed South Africa, perhaps with a wistful sense of what might have been, but hopeful nonetheless for the future.

The emotion of Landon Donovan's 91st minute goal vs. Algeria, the blind rage at referees run amok against Slovenia, the disappointment when Jozy Altidores sliding shot trickled wide against Ghana, all begin to fade, to give way to a happy nostalgia and a well-earned summer break.

Soccer becomes, for a brief period, secondary.

Unless you live in Spain. Which I do, as my still-celebrating wife, daughter and co-workers could attest to if their voices ever came back.

Granted, they would still have a tough time making themselves audible over their compatriots' continuing cries of "Viva Espaņa" and the deranged laughter of impromptu bathers in the country's countless public fountains.

I'm jealous, of course, but not so much of the victory as of the national obsession, of the prominent role soccer plays in the lives of a startlingly large percentage of the population.

The Spanish have a phrase that translates as: "Comparisons are odious". It makes sense, even if in light of their victory it sounds a lot like gloating. But it is inevitable to compare our soccer culture to that of the best team in the world, especially when that culture is gathering by the millions in front of my house until five in the morning to sing round after endless round of: "Illa, illa, Villa maravilla!"

Support for soccer in the US, as evidenced by World Cup viewing audiences and media coverage, is no doubt on the rise.

But even as we debate youth development, the further refinement of a uniquely American style of play, and who the right coach is to lead us into the future, I can't help but feel that an important obstacle remains; a tactical disadvantage against the foreign legions of the soccer-crazed.

I'm probably part of the problem. Exciting as it would have been to watch the games this summer in the company of Yanks, I admit that I still relished the total cultural immersion readily and almost casually on offer in Europe.

People didn't have to be reminded that the World Cup was the most important thing going on, even in countries that hadn't qualified. It was a given.

In a meeting in Helsingborg, Sweden during the Spain-Switzerland match, the game was beamed onto the conference-room screen, providing a frustrating backdrop for the Spanish contingent even as we huddled around a laptop to view a Powerpoint presentation on a decidedly non-soccer related topic.

While watching USA-Algeria in a Mexican restaurant in Paris it took concentration and all my six-words of French to understand the pro-Algerian banter directed at me from owners and patrons alike. Far from being offended, I was invigorated.

How great was it to find a passionate, engaged public in the first air-conditioned bar I happened to wander into? At one table there were even some real Algerians!

Mexicans, Algerians, Parisians and me, all watching the US play soccer and caring about the outcome. I felt way multi-cultural, and above all thankful to be in a part of the world where my soccer-fixation, long-considered an eccentricity or affectation in my home country, was matched by an overwhelming majority.

It's true that soccer is entering the mainstream more and more in the States, and at an inspired pace, but gatherings similar to the one I wandered into in Paris probably won't be the norm at every corner bar in the US anytime soon.

How this impacts the team's play, much less its prospects for the future, is difficult to quantify. It has been commented ad nauseum that top youth talent gravitates toward other sports, inspired in part by the glamor of MLB, the NBA and the NFL (steroids, dog-fighting, long showers with Pau Gasol, respectively), and in part by childhoods spent reenacting greatest hits from those sports as viewed in living-rooms across the country.

Only an increased promotion of the top European leagues is going to convince generations of American kids that a quick path to multimillionaire rock-stardom lies through playing soccer. I'm not talking about the actual games, but of the players themselves. It isn't up to ESPN. It's up to Access Hollywood.

Beckham was a good start. Thierry Henry just landed in New York, and Cristiano Ronaldo allegedly impregnating an American waitress was a stroke of PR genius by the USSF.

Hopefully it is all the beginning of a grand trend. But we can't rely on European soccer playboys and the mass media alone to win this battle. Support for intense, nationwide fandom begins in the home. It's a lesson the Spaniards have learned well.

At a baptism for a friend's son in a small village in Avila, keys were secured to a building called "La Peņa" so I could duck out of the reception to watch the USA lose to Ghana on the only television with satellite signal in the area.

The combination bar, sports club and church is as good a spot as I can imagine for accommodating a broad cross-section of fans, from those who pray for inspiration to those attempting to drink their team to victory.

Seating is in pews, lined up in front of a makeshift altar with a 42" flat-screen hung several feet above. The symbolism couldn't be more apt.

That I prioritized seeing the game over attending the baptism post-party was considered normal by the other attendees, who sent encouraging text messages throughout. There would be other sacraments, but how many times was the US going to make it past the opening round? Truly, here was a country where a soccer fan could be a soccer fan.

In these types of experiences it is painfully clear just how much work we have cut out for ourselves to compete as a fan culture, and it isn't like the rest of the world is going to slow down and wait for us to catch up.

But odious comparisons aren't going to get us anywhere. Sure, it is only a fraction of the US population that takes to the streets in celebration after an important game.

But the cameras are rolling when they do, and people watching at home are wondering what they might be missing. Maybe not the noblest of motivations to get involved, but if it keeps the fan base growing, I'll take it.

I'm convinced we are on the right path, and that a moment of acceleration will arrive, well before Cristiano's son, in a shock decision, seeks out his birth-mother, live on all major networks, to tell her he wants to play for the US.

It could come through the growth of MLS, through a miracle run in 2014, or through a more gradual cultural shift building cumulatively to a tipping point, but mark my words: sooner or later, soccer will grip the hearts and minds of our nation.

When that day comes, I may still be kept up all night by the sounds of Spanish celebration, but I will endure them without envy, comforted in the knowledge that on other nights, in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston or New York, some European expatriate has stood at his window, sleepless, shaking his fist in silent rage at those damn American soccer fans and their incessant, unbridled, ear-shattering love of the game.
Matt in Memphis
Wednesday August 4, 2010 2:31 pm
As much as I would love to see soccer be the number 1 sport in the USA, alas, I fear it will never be. That is not to say it wont grow in stature or its fan base. This is the first World Cup that the non-fans around me were both interested and talking about the USA and games in general.

I started to think it could happen, and then reality sunk in. I went to see the St. Louis Cardinals play the Milwaukee Brewers in St. Louis on July 3. Mid season game, nothing at stake and over 30,000 people show up, all dressed in Cardinals shirts. Their kids too. these folks may watch the world cup every four years, their kids too, but they wont become like us.
Brandon
Tuesday August 3, 2010 2:39 pm
Will soccer ever surpass the big 3 sports in the USA? Yes, and for one reason. None of those sports have a true World Champion. Only when your team beats other nations' teams in a competition do you have the undivided support of your people. When the Yankees win the World Series, 49 states and their residents could hardly care less. When the US wins a soccer match, everyone will support that. Roger Goodell, Bud Selig, David Stern are all trying to make their sport relevant internationally, and they are not succeeding. It's their achilles heel and they know it. Sulati knows it and correctly has fostered the international aspect of soccer by bringing many foreign teams to the US. Nationalism is way more powerful than any regional team support, and it will eventually happen here!
Kyle
Saturday July 31, 2010 3:47 pm
People take soccer really seriously in Spain? No. They gather at restaurants in France? Get Out!

The comparison is also perhaps odious b/c you didn't experience the world cup in the US this time round, and hence don't even know how this cup compares. I don't doubt the mania is at another level in Europe, but it was staggering to see the number of people who came out, in the middle of a business day, to support the US for the Algeria game. US v. Ghana, again daytime, almost beat the TV ratings for Game 7 of the Celtics v. Lakers playoffs during prime time.

The fire is burning here, and you have yet to see it
Chris Combs
Thursday July 29, 2010 11:15 am
I too struggle with the fact that my incessant ramblings about our team, our "soccer culture", the real quality of our players, when we can "really compete", WANTING to attend games where Mexicans throw "bags of WHAT???" at me, etc. are seen as weird, yet I don't entirely want everyone there with me.

Sure, it'll be awesome the first time a US cheer that isn't "U-S-A" takes over a stadium the way "C'mon England" and "Ole ole ole ole" do, but knowing our country everything will be made so family-safe that it won't be as fun any more (and I say that as a parent).

But my biggest issue with the "when will soccer be as big as it is in..." is that NOTHING we have is as big as soccer is nearly everywhere else. Yankees-Red Sox? Nope. Packers-Bears? Nope. Eagles and all the teams their fans hate? Nope. Carolina-Duke? Still not there. I do believe soccer will become the top sport in our country, but I don't think it will ever be an all encompassing, life altering event here.

It would be fun, though, if our country had to declare national holidays on game days just because everyone would call in sick if we didn't!
matt
Thursday July 29, 2010 9:57 am
We invited a legion of unbelievers to the US games at the local American Outlaws pub. You can't get that atmosphere anywhere for any event, not the world series, not the NBA finals, nowhere. In fact, nothing even comes close. Nothing.

Every last one of them, while not a new obsessive fanatic is converted. I think it will take another tournament for that.
Dave in San Jose
Wednesday July 28, 2010 3:31 pm
An excellent piece of prose, Eric. Your stories about the business meeting in Sweden, the cafe in France and especially the baptism in Avila, are fantastic. Please contribute more to YA. The "Fire Bob Bradley" threads get tiresome.
vik
Wednesday July 28, 2010 3:24 pm
While i hope soccer gets popular with more Americans, I love the minority soccer fans right now. In other countries, where everyone is a fan, most are casual fans who couldn't tell you the bench players on their national team. US Soccer fans are a little fanatical and it's rare you pass one who can't tell you most players in the national pool, the club teams they play/ed for in the present/past, and their individual strengths or weaknesses. Their soccer knowledge is better than most soccer fans in the world.

With expansion of the fanbase come dilution of knowledge. But yes, it would be nice to have the best league in the world here; and that will happen only with more "casual" fans.
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