by R J Furth

“Could you please explain to me what the big deal is about the World Cup?”

It might seem like an innocent question, except it was delivered with a smirk, the same smirk that I often saw and heard in the U.S. during the World Cup. It was asked by somebody who doesn’t own a passport and doesn’t see much reason to own one. As much as I detest vuvezelas (part of the culture of South America; what a load of crap!), those plastic noisemakers that robbed us of the pleasure of listening to the cheers and groans of the crowd, I grew even more resentful of the U.S. attitude toward soccer and the World Cup. My sister-in-law thought I was being harsh. She correctly pointed out that Americans from coast to coast were giddy about the World Cup. What she failed to grasp was how limited that giddiness was. Yes, there were many Americans who watched the World Cup, met at sports bars while wearing the jerseys of their favorite teams, deconstructed games by the water cooler. There were many more who asked, ‘What’s the big deal?’

Those who know me or have read Globewriter know that I’m an internationalist. Although I wasn’t raised with soccer, I’ve been an avid fan since 1981 when I played (lousy) goalie for the faculty team at the International School of Kuala Lumpur. I watched the 1982 World Cup (Italy won) in Melbourne with Greek friends and have not missed a World Cup since. I’ve had the pleasure of talking soccer with people from dozens of nations, a discussion that invariably draws people closer. I’ve also made a point of studying the major sports of every country that I’ve lived in: Australian Rules Football, Sumo in Japan, badminton in Malaysia, soccer in England. Sports, like food, is a way to get to know a nation. Since soccer is the most widely played sport in the world, following soccer is a way to connect with people around the world. Of course, that is of little – or no – interest to most Americans. What American gives a rat’s ass about what sport they play in the Ivory Coast? How many Americans even knew there was a country called the Ivory Coast?

I urged my friend (‘what’s the big deal?’) to watch a World Cup game. Half way into the tournament he told me he had watched an entire six minutes of a game. He was not impressed. ‘It seems like anybody can just kick a ball around,’ was the gist of his comment. You could say the same thing about golf (anybody can just hit a ball in a hole) or baseball (just a bunch of guys hitting, catching and throwing a ball) or World War II (just a bunch of guys killing each other). He was not alone in denigrating soccer. Although ESPN hosted World Cup coverage in the U.S., it was obvious that most ESPN broadcasters only watched soccer every four years. The main commentators were British, South African, Dutch, with the occasional Yank thrown in. At least ESPN gave it a try. Sports radio didn’t bother hiding its contempt for what most viewed as a second-rate sport. What true sport allows games to end in a tie? they asked. Where were the instant replays and constant analysis that accompany real American sports? How can you take a country like Uruguay – population 3.5 million – seriously? Who really cares about teams from Ghana or South Korea? For most Americans, the World Cup is on par with the Little League World Series. Mildly interesting, yet ultimately less important than a Friday night high school football game in Texas. Don’t believe that? Check the statistics on U.S. viewing after the U.S. team was eliminated by Ghana.

Soccer will never be big in the U.S. Most Americans see it was a game for kids and immigrants, not ‘real’ Americans. Even the term ‘soccer moms’ is one of derision. Around the world kids join soccer federations where they are coached by ex-players and trained for greatness. In the U.S. their moms drive them to games where they are coached by dads and high school kids. Most U.S. athletes are motivated by the dream of fame and big money. There is no big money in soccer, nor is there much fame. Before June 11 (the start of the World Cup) you would have been hard pressed to find a dozen Americans who could name a dozen players on the U.S. World Cup team. Try to find a dozen Americans who’ve never heard of Lebron James or Peyton Manning. How could Uruguay – 3.5 million people – reach the semifinals of the World Cup? How could the Netherlands – 16.7 million – reach the finals? How could Ghana – 25 million – defeat the mighty U.S.? The answer is simple: these nations’ finest athletes were supported by their entire country. In the U.S. the finest athletes play football or basketball or baseball, sports that offer big bucks and national fame. I don’t mean to disrespect the U.S. soccer team, but it wasn’t stocked with America’s finest. Imagine Lebron James as goalie, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul as strikers, Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez as midfielders. Pick the greatest American athletes, raise them to be rabid about soccer, and the U.S. will give Brazil and Germany and Spain a run for the trophy. U.S. fans would go crazy. We’d all be blowing vuvuzelas. That’s never going to happen.

I don’t mind that soccer isn’t big in the U.S. As an internationalist I kind of like it that way. We’re world champions in baseball (if you only count the ‘World Series’, which includes one Canadian team and not a single one from another country) and football (the American version, played only in the U.S.). We dominate the summer Olympics. (Who really cares about the Winter Olympics. Not us Yanks.) I’m glad that a sport exists where the champion isn’t determined by size of population, political power and wealth. Soccer is about passion and it’s open to any and every nation in the world. I like it that way. I only wish that Americans would open their minds and try to understand and appreciate the most popular sport on the planet, even if they stand little chance of ever winning the greatest sports trophy of them all, the only one that is truly a world championship. I hope for the day when I can turn on the radio and not hear a well-known U.S. sportscaster mock the World Cup. I don’t ask my fellow Americans to love soccer as much as they love football, baseball or basketball. I only ask that they show respect for the #1 sporting event in the entire world. Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that it’ll ever happen. Then again, who would have ever believed that the U.S. would have a president whose middle name is Hussein.

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