Soccer is, without a doubt, the most loved game in the world. For proof, consider that 26 billion people watched the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Here’s some context for that number: the world’s total population is approximately 6.76 billion. That means four times the number of people alive on the Earth today watched some portion of the two week tournament.
That’s simply staggering.
A more accessible comparison: the last Super Bowl was watched by 151 million viewers around the world. The World Cup Final between Italy and France had a total audience of 715 million people. By any standard, that’s a blowout.
So why is it that Americans have failed to embrace a game the rest of the world can’t live without?
The obvious answer is that we don’t grow up with the game the way they do in England, Brazil, and Ghana. It’s not culturally ingrained. But, I believe, there are reasons it’s not culturally ingrained, core reasons the game doesn’t appeal to our national character.
The first roadblock to our loving soccer is pure American hubris. Over the past 50 years, America has dominated the world economically, militarily, and culturally. In that time we have grown accustomed to being the best. We can’t fathom countries like Brazil and Germany, Italy, and Argentina being better than us.
In fact, we’re so committed to winning that we’ve exported our own homegrown sports—baseball, basketball, and football—to the rest of the world, allowing us not just to win, but to reap the financial rewards of exporting our superiority.
Sadly, this tactic is coming back to haunt us as Asian countries are hammering us in baseball, and European countries are making great strides in basketball.
Football is another matter. Suffice to say it’s expensive. We don’t play soccer for the same reason we don’t play cricket or field hockey or rugby.
We’re simply not an underdog nation so why choose to become one?
Secondly, America lacks the historical enmity required to create national fervor around it’s soccer team. Our geographical positioning—bordered by two oceans and two weaker neighbors—we are a country apart.
We’re not surrounded on all sides by countries we’ve been warring with for eons. But more important than anything, we don’t compete at our national pastime against countries who defeated us at war.
We have rarely been humiliated on the field of battle. We have surprisingly few wounds to lick. This is not the case with other countries, countries with longer, more calamitous histories. More importantly we don’t share our games with other countries.
We play our own games. But when passion for a sport is shared across countries that have historically violent relationships, well, then the games take on socio-political ramifications of major proportions.
This is true when Germany plays France, when Japan plays Korea, and when Argentina plays England. It’s no surprise then that the best matches played by the U.S. national side are against Mexico, though the fervor surrounding these matches is expressed with much greater passion South of the border. Mexico has always had more reason to hate us than we do to hate them.
Finally, the most psychologically powerful reason that Americans have never embraced soccer with the same passion as the rest of the world, has to do with our values and our beliefs.
We are a land of invention and technology, a land of that embraces the rule of law and easy credit. We are perhaps the least class conscious nation in world history.
What does this have to do with soccer?
Well, soccer is a particularly onerous game. The only timeouts occur because of injury, so strategy is in the hands of the players, not the coaches. An 11 man side is only allowed three substitutes over the course of 90 minutes, making fitness and all-around ability critical (soccer has no equivalent to the designated hitter).
The fluidity of the game, the endless interchanging of positions on the field, the need to think and react during the run of play all conspire to make the game particularly demanding. Translation: even great teams don’t score many points.
In effect, the effort-to-reward ratio in soccer is incredibly low. And we, Americans, simply don’t place much merit in third world mathematics. If we work hard, we expect to be compensated for that work. That’s why we like basketball and football where points can be piled up.
(Note: baseball appears to contradict this argument, but I’d counter that 1. baseball was our national pastime before we were a superpower and 2. the steroid era—which resuscitated baseball after the strike—saw a major reduction in the effort-to-reward ratio and a subsequent increase in the fan base.)
In the rest of the world, where poverty and rigid class distinctions are so much more ingrained, people intrinsically understand that even massive amounts of effort will not always guarantee reward. To put it simply, for most of the 6.7 billion people on this Earth, life is hard. And so is soccer.
There is nothing right or wrong about America’s ambivalence towards the world’s most popular game. In the end it is what it is.
Americans will never become passionate about the game or be an international side to reckon with until we stop being a superpower and discover that, when your means are modest, hard work ain’t all its cracked up to be. Of course, that doesn’t mean those few among who find the game indelibly beautiful can’t keep dreaming.