It happens every four years.
No, not the World Cup. I’m talking about all those snarky columns that inevitably follow the U.S. team’s exit from the World Cup. You know, the ones that gleefully celebrate the proposition that soccer will never catch on in the United States and we can now just go back to ignoring this strange game.
I’m a soccer fan, but I’m beginning to think that I should just concede that point and move on. It just bothers me that “the beautiful game, ” a sport celebrated by millions around the world is not just greeted with apathy by most Americans, but with downright hostility in some quarters. We’re probably the only nation of the 32 who started the World Cup whose team didn’t have the support of the great majority of its sports fans.
The typical American attitude about soccer seems to be, “I don’t know anything about soccer, but I don’t like it and you can’t make me.”
I’ve seen some of the arguments for years:
– it’s played by all those foreigners, and even the Americans who play it have names like Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu (who by the way is as much a Clemson Tiger as any former student from Summerville, York or Orangeburg).
–Every soccer score seems to be 1-0. Well, part of the beauty of soccer is watching how hard teams have to work to get a chance to score. It wasn’t meant to be easy. If you really want to criticize a sport for scoring futility, look at the NBA teams who can’t break 80 points in 48 minutes of basketball with a 24-second clock – see the Boston Celtics in the last two games of the championship series.
But I’ve become convinced now that most of Americans’ reluctance to embrace soccer has nothing to do with how boring the game seems. It’s cultural.
Our team’s losing to a small African nation in the round of 16 last weekend didn’t help. “We’re the richest, most powerful nation in the world and we lost to – Ghana? Where’s that?” Americans shouldn’t lose to countries people have never heard of.
And in Internet discussions of this topic, I’ve even seen the doctrine of American exceptionalism invoked against our full participation in the world’s soccer community.
There are too many people out there that want to make America more like Europe, goes that argument – which we also heard in the health care debate, as I recall. And that goes for sports, too. It’s actually a good thing that we’re one of the few major nations where soccer isn’t followed by nearly all of its sports fans. Who needs the rest of the world?
But mostly I think it’s because soccer has never become part of the fabric of sports culture in this country. For years, soccer boosters said that when all these kids who play soccer on the weekends grow up, it was going to make soccer a huge spectator sport in the U.S. Then, the 1994 World Cup which we hosted, followed by the launch of Major League Soccer, was going to be the breakthrough.
But something else has always been lacking and I think that a high school soccer coach whose team I covered as a sports writer in Pensacola, Fla., in the early Nineties put his foot squarely on it. His contention was that soccer was missing what’s been called the water cooler effect.
In other words, people talk about the key plays in yesterday’s big NFL or college football game on the morning after — and now even before. Same with college or even NBA basketball. Even baseball has generated that kind of post-game buzz this season with the Stephen Strasburg debut, the two perfect games and Armando Gallaraga’s near miss that should have been.
“Those kinds of conversations don’t take place about soccer. Like did you see that great goal, or what about that controversial call,” he said. “In this country there’s not much attention paid to soccer unless there’s a riot at a match in Belgium or something. And it’s not going to be big unless it does start generating the conversations about what happened.”
Twenty years later, soccer is still struggling to have Americans talk about it for the right reasons. Unfortunately, what’s gotten a lot of attention in this World Cup are things like the egregiously bad officiating in some of the matches and the spectacle of players who fall as if they’ve been pole-axed if an opponent gives them a slight nudge.
Too bad, because many Americans look for the slightest excuse not to care about the game. And this sport. which can be very engaging in its complexity if you know what to look for, doesn’t need to go out of its way to help that along.