We Americans don’t often think about it, but in terms of our sports preferences we’re like the Galapagos Islands, inhabited by species that scarcely exist elsewhere. Football, our opinion-poll fan favorite, is played nowhere but in the U.S. and Canada, and baseball’s international appeal is so narrow it’s been pulled from the Olympic schedule. Among our Big Three sports only basketball has a world following, and it’s of recent origin.
The real world sport is real football—which we almost uniquely choose to call soccer. It thrives in just about all of the planet’s 200-odd nations and is the major sport in most of them. It is at once a game, a passion and a common language shared by humans of all stripes and polka dots. To be truly “globalized” means to be counted in that number.
It’s easy for us Yanks to shrug off the above with a “so what?” After all, our sports calendar is nicely filled and needs no further padding. In every fourth year, however, it’s possible to be a citizen of the larger world for a time investment of no more than a month. That opportunity again is fast approaching. It’s the 32-nation final rounds of the soccer World Cup, which will be held in South Africa from June 11 to July 11.
The World Cup is one event that always lives up to its hype. I covered two of them—in the U.S. in 1994 and France in 1998—and they rank 1 and 1A as my most- memorable sports, uh, memories. The competition was fierce, the quality of play was amazingly high and the crowds were uniformly large, colorful and festive. People cared who won to a degree that was exponentially greater than that exhibited in our own annual showdowns such as the Super Bowl and Final Four, its force pulling everything around it into its vortex. To be in Paris when France claimed the ’98 Cup was to walk on air, Frenchman or not. It must have been close to what VE Day was like in that magical city 53 years before.
Americans historically have resisted soccer’s allure. No doubt that’s partly on purpose, expressing the exceptionalism that caused our forbears to reshape English cricket into baseball and rugby into football before embracing them. It’s partly semantic, I think, a reaction to the word “soccer,” which was clunkily derived from the term “association football” (“soc”—get it?) to distinguish it from our domestic variety. An uglier word hardly exists.
I’d also offer a mysterious, biological reason: American children enjoy soccer well enough to make it a leading youth sport, but when they turn age 13 (especially the boys) a genetic change seems to take place that turns them into football players and fans. The NIH should look into this.
Then there’s the nature of the game itself, which is low-scoring and tactical rather than All-American slam-bang, but the tactics are appealing if understood, and the rarity of goals makes each one all the more thrilling. Soccer is the simplest of games to understand, and anyone who is sports-savvy and takes the trouble to watch one good contest from beginning to end will not only soak up its plot but also will appreciate its drama. Try it and you’ll like it, I guarantee.
A final reason for us not to like soccer is that our men never have been much good at it, but that’s changing. Partly because of the interest stirred by the ’94 Cup on these shores, the American game has been improving, and while the pace of that improvement hasn’t been even (our 2002 national team reached the Cup quarterfinals but the ’06 unit laid an egg) it’s been solid nonetheless. Major League Soccer, our domestic pro league, finally seems to be on solid footing, and Americans now perform on good teams in various European major leagues.
The U.S. men’s team placed first in its Cup qualifying group, beating out perennial regional power Mexico, and in a tournament in South Africa last summer it defeated world No. 1 Spain and lost by a goal in the final to always-powerful Brazil after leading, 2-0. Some desultory international showings since have dropped the U.S.’s world ranking to 18th, but it probably deserves to be several notches higher.
Even so it’ll be the second-highest-ranked team in its four-nation Cup division (behind England and ahead of Slovenia and Algeria), so it has a fair chance to advance to the knockout rounds. It has an able veteran leader in the midfielder Landon Donovan, and the 20-year-old forward Jozy Altidore, Florida-born of Haitian parents, is the sort of young star it’s long sought. The team likes to score and is fun to watch, a good combination.
All the games in the tournament will be televised live by ESPN. Eastern starting times will be 7 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., which ain’t terrible for an event so far away. My son Mike, who lives in Belgium and follows soccer on a daily basis, will handicap the World Cup field in this space come June, but, meantime, I urge you to point your antennae in its direction.
Believe me now, thank me later.