When people ask me to name the best event I ever covered as a sportswriter, I answer without hesitation. It was the 1998 soccer World Cup in France. No 2? Also easy-- the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
The 1998 fest gets the nod in large part because it enabled me (and wife Susie) to spend five weeks in France on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, but both World Cups stood out from a sporting standpoint. The high athletic level of the games and the color, enthusiasm and good nature of the crowds made both occasions memorable. To attend a World Cup is to love it.
Thanks to ESPN’s brilliant, wall-to-wall coverage, Americans have been getting a virtual World Cup experience this time around that’s almost as good as the real thing, and the results have been startling. We are more into the event than when we were the hosts, with sports bars packed to capacity when the U.S. team plays and large crowds gathering in open-air urban venues to watch the action communally on big screens, just like in Europe and Latin America. Almost 25 million people watched the U.S.-Portugal match on TV, more than watched any game of the NBA or NHL finals. Little kids say they want to be soccer players when they grow up.
With this exposure has come a marked increase in soccer literacy. A few years ago about all the typical Yank could tell you about the game was that the English star David Beckham was a cute guy with a cuter wife. Today many of us know what a “striker” is, and the terms “offside,” “cross,” “penalty kick” and “stoppage time” also have become familiar. I heard one radio sports-blab guy give a match score as “one- nil” without a hint of sarcasm. That’s progress.
True to form, however, our burst of soccermania has led some to conclude that the sport is about to rival our traditional Big Three of baseball, football and basketball for our year-around attentions. Not so fast, folks. Soccer is an acquired taste that’s acquired gradually, and will need more than a once-every-four-years goose to truly catch on hereabouts. Americans who follow the sport (I am one of them) will need to exercise the quite-unAmerican trait of patience before we see it achieve capital-letter popularity.
The patience theme is apparent in the World Cup history of our men’s national team. The U.S. participated in three of the event’s first four renewals (in 1930, ’34 and ’50), before it was a big deal, but the game then receded into irrelevance on these shores and World Cup qualification wasn’t again achieved until 1990. That team proved how far the U.S. had to go to compete against nations with greater soccer history and dedication; consisting mostly of collegians, it was sent home after three thrashings, outscored two goals to eight.
Things improved thereafter, with qualification coming in 1994 and ’98 and 2002, ’06 and ’10. Instead of with college kids those teams filled their ranks with pros, some of them with European experience. But they weren’t the best players on the best teams there, and although the 2002 edition surprised with a quarterfinals berth it never threatened seriously to bring home the funny-looking champion’s trophy.
While it lacks the star it never has had, this year’s U.S. team is the deepest and hardest working yet, and probably the best coached. A long shot to advance in a group with Germany, ranked No. 2 worldwide, No. 4 Portugal and good-though-unranked Ghana (the U.S. came in at No. 13), the Yanks beat Ghana and came within a heart-stopping 30 seconds of victory over Portugal and immediate advancement. They lost to Germany last Thursday, and while the score was 1-0 German domination of the game signaled that the road to the top still was long. Nonetheless, the U.S. made it to the round of 16, no small accomplishment and enough to fuel future optimism.
The long-view requirement is even stronger when it comes to building the sort of domestic professional league necessary for any lasting popularity gains. One pro circuit—the North American Soccer League—was launched in 1968 and made a splash in the 1970s with the high-priced signings of the superannuated international stars Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. It was gone by 1984, the victim of too-large payrolls and too-small attendance.
The next try was Major League Soccer, started in 1996 with more-modest aims and budgets. MLS struggled until most of its teams abandoned large football stadiums as homes and built or found venues with capacities in the 20,000-to-25,000-seat range that created a snugger, more-intense fan experience for the size of crowds it was attracting. It also has profited by organizing its hard-core backers into the kind of supporter groups that help European club teams thrive. Team names like Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake, however comical, are a further try to recreate a European club atmosphere.
MLS has grown to 19 teams from 10 at its inception, and is said to be making money. Still, it’s a second-tier league with an out-of-synch summer schedule whose quality of play is well below that of the European “majors” in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. American players who want to test themselves against the best will have to cross the ocean to do so, as they do now.
There’s no denying, though, that soccer culture is spreading in the U.S., and making a mark. FOX TV and the new NBC Sports channels have been broadcasting a regular stream of top-level European club games into this country, with good ratings. We’re a big, rich market and it would be no surprise if the people who run, say, the English Premier League were mulling expanding into an American city or two, the way our NBA is said to be eyeing Europe.
Picture it if you will: the New York Whachamacallits versus Man U in an EPL game.
It’ll happen. Just be patient.