On June 12, the greatest sporting event in the world begins anew: FIFA World Cup 2014.
And millions of Americans don’t care.
Meanwhile, billions of people, including millions of Americans, will watch the games of the World Cup, the pinnacle of the game of soccer which occurs every four years. The anticipation of this event among soccer fans is unrivaled in all of the world’s sports, in terms both of number and fervor.
And America just doesn’t get it.
From a personal standpoint, I both understand it and don’t understand it. Before 1999, I had no interest or knowledge of soccer. I enjoyed it as an international competition the way I enjoy Olympics, but specific to soccer I had no thoughts.
Then my daughter started playing the game, and I started covering the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer for the Daily Herald newspaper in Chicago, and the bug bit me.
Now I don’t understand the reluctance. The game itself is a remarkable battle of skill and when played well it resembles an athletic dance, with ball movement both forward and sideways playing into victory or defeat.
And many Americans hear “blah, blah, blah.”
Theories on the lack of appeal of soccer in America, and arguments against those theories, include:
Not enough scoring – Soccer games can end 0-0. Many games end 1-0. In international competitions, teams rarely score more than three times. That being said, when one goal can determine the outcome, waiting for that goal to be scored is highly charged anticipation.
Games can end in ties – I think this is a major problem with American sports fans. They abhor ties. There has to be a winner and a loser, otherwise why play? But this is as much an indictment of American sports fans who cannot understand that for an underdog, a draw can seem like a victory. Watching a team hold on to a tie is just as dramatic as watching a team hold on to a victory. Chess matches can end in draws; Americans don’t care about that, either.
(A quick aside: Early in the lifespan of the MLS, it decided games in shootouts in an attempt to appeal to the American need for an actual winner. Then it decided it was chasing the wrong audience. Now it allows games to end in draws, and continues to grow).
It’s just not our sport – As jingoism, defined as ‘belligerent nationalism’, raises its ugly head. Others play it better than we do, and have played it longer than we have, so to heck with it, right? My favorite soccer joke is “Soccer is the sport of the future in America and always will be.” Again, this seems like a character flaw in Americans. There is only one World Cup champion ever four years, and only eight countries have ever won a World Cup in the 19 previous tournaments, and yet the billions from every country other than ours not only pay attention but hang on the sport and its ultimate championship. Why can’t we?
It’s not physical enough – Americans love football because bodies slam into each other (only not as much as they used to) and hockey has in-game fights. How great is that? But from an athletic standpoint, only hockey players can truly say they extend themselves as much as soccer players do in a team sport, and soccer players often play every minute of a 90-minute game, which hockey players do not. While soccer fights are not prevalent, the contact that occurs in soccer in the form of tackles and the contact that occurs when two players are chasing down a loose ball can be extreme.
I had the pleasure of working for several years with Bob Bradley, the former coach of the Fire and the former coach of the U.S. national team. I heard him talk to another sportswriter who admitted he did not get the appeal of soccer.
“That’s fine,’’ Bradley said. “You are allowed to have your opinion. Not everybody gets it. But just keep it to yourself. Don’t stand in our way. Don’t criticize the sport that you may not understand. Let us have our game and our audience.”
Starting on June 12, soccer will take over the world once again. Americans are invited to join in.
It’s not too late.