Just Win, Baby: Getting the United States Interested in Soccer
Let me start out this article by stating the fact that I am not what you might call a hard-core soccer (futbol) fan.
Where I come from, soccer was the wussy game you played in the interim before you were eligible for tackle-football leagues because it was perceived as a "safe" sport for young kids to play.
You weren't going to break your neck playing soccer.
You weren't going to rupture your spleen or irrevocably damage your shoulders.
Soccer, in essence, was thought of as the training wheels to true sport—something you could play competitively without the risk of serious bodily harm.
Soccer was not a real sport. It was merely the diaper you wore before you became fully toilet-trained.
Now, I'm not here to argue that this ideology is correct, merely to state that perception often tangibly reflects reality when it comes to recruitment and fan interest.
That this game is also called the "beautiful game," full of Fabio's and Ronaldo's and metrosexual innuendo, has also hindered its acceptance in a country that firmly thinks it is full of cowboys, steelworkers, and pioneers, even though demographics clearly indicate that most of us have never partaken in any of these "manly" endeavors.
So growing up, I played soccer until I was 10 and then joined pee-wee football, and Lord knows I loved that game.
This makes me uniquely qualified to talk about soccer.
How? Because I've never followed it, generally dismissed it, and though I always knew that it would eventually acquire its place in the pantheon of (North) American sport, thought that it would take a display of competence that I wasn't likely to see.
You see, the irony of United States fandom is that even though we fancy ourselves as blue collar Joe's, we are absolute elitists when it comes to sport.
Not winning the gold medal with amateurs? Then it's time to put together a Dream Team, even though it goes against everything the Olympics stand for.
Not a recognized sport in most other nations around the world? Then we'll call our titles "World Titles" anyway, to make us think that only America could produce such a forum of imposing athletes.
As our games became more international, we began to see how silly this was, with the Dominicans dominating baseball and the Europeans catching up in basketball, but since we still fielded teams that won, our interest and pride remained intact.
You see, winning is what sells in America.
When I heard that David Beckham was coming to America to resurrect soccer in the United States, I laughed. And I laughed some more. And then I let out an unadulterated guffaw. How could this possibly work?
Sports fans are a different kind of hero-worshiper, not interested in how super-dreamy a player is, not interested in whether or not he's married to a washed-up questionable pop icon, and not interested in whether he was once a great player.
We worship greatness on the field, and there was no mistaking the fact that the MLS was an inferior product anyway, so even if Beckham had dominated the scene, he would've been doing so in an inferior league full of inferior players.
The United States sports fan has no taste for this type of farce.
We are interested only in being the best.
In the same way that many fans of basketball summarily dismiss the WNBA, even though these women could whoop up in any pickup game against most men on the street, we know that what we are watching is a grade below excellence. That the players happen to be women becomes merely a carnival act.
Are they the best? No? Then why do I care?
This brings me to the FIFA Confederations Cup and the unlikely emergence of the United States as a contender.
You see, I went to the bar today to watch a soccer match. Let me say that again. I, someone who has never watched soccer, went out of my way to head to the bar to watch a game that my local cable company would not provide.
Well, there are a number of reasons.
First, though I'm not a hardcore fan of the sport, I do recognise it as perhaps the only true world-wide competition. Running is the other.
In my journeys, I've played soccer with a coconut among the bare-footed children of Africa, hit a raggedy ball around in the slums of Quito, and got in a random pickup game in the parks of Paris.
I may not follow the game, but I know it and have certainly seen it around the globe.
Second, like all American sports fans, I'm an elitist and have generally dismissed games that we haven't performed well in, from ping pong to cross-country skiing.
But somehow the landscape of American soccer now seems irrevocably changed.
Granted, we didn't win.
Granted, Brazil played circles around us in the second half and was denied a goal that was clearly in the net before being deflected out.
But damn it, we competed. We beat Spain and Egypt and nearly spoiled the mighty Brazilians.
And let me tell you folks, this is what it takes to get the United States interested in soccer. I know because it's got me by the collar for the moment.
The true test will be whether the U.S. team can make a legitimate run in the World Cup and whether they can consistently play well and show great effort, unlike in the early games of the Confederations Cup.
Winning sells in America.
And if the Confederations Cup is even a shadow of things to come, then maybe, just maybe, soccer has finally arrived in the home of the brave.
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