Making Sense of The World Cup
It’s going to be difficult to avoid things related to The World Cup Tournament for the next few weeks, so it seems like an appropriate time to discuss what we call “Soccer” and what most of the rest of the world calls “Football” and understand just why just about every other country is fanatical about the sport and why the USA isn’t, but why that might be changing.
Let’s start with our perspective. There are four big team sports that Americans follow with regularity: Baseball, Basketball, Hockey and our version of Football, with the yard markers and the oblong shaped ball. And there are rivalries in these various sports that help define each particular fan. The Yankees and Red Sox competition in Baseball is world renowned. We just witnessed the latest in the series from the Celtics and the Lakers on the hardwood. What about Michigan and Ohio State on the college gridiron? (And certainly there’s many college rivalries involved in all these various sports.)
Hockey is the sport that most resembles the game in question, and for most US residents, it’s also the fourth go-to choice of the four big sports. Of course Canada is steeped in Hockey, but that has to do with the climate of their country. It stays cold in Canada until May, and is frigid again in late September. Why wouldn’t they embrace a game that’s played on ice? And by proxy, we got involved with that game because our neighbors were so connected with it. How could we not at least have a mild interest in hockey when the country that shares our longest border is living that sport, practically year round?
But the NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA are all organizations with teams that have long, storied histories. By comparison, the MLS or Major League Soccer in North America got started in 1993, the same year that Nickelodeon stars Keke Palmer and Miranda Cosgrove were born, so not much of a legacy there. And really, it’s the pro leagues in the USA that gain the most attention, with the College sports following after that. So, if you don’t have a pro league that is well established and well attended, you probably aren’t going to get a lot of attention.
When you’re dealing with the professional teams in those big four sports, fans are formed based on the geography. Where you grew up is often the team you follow and support. You bonded with your father over a baseball or hockey game he took you to see. You went with your co-workers to a Monday Night Football game, or at least an after work viewing at a local bar or hangout. And as for College, you have the alumni of the various universities, so every school has an instant fan base. There’s no way to create a similar scenario with soccer.
From the perspective of the rest of the planet, football is a defining force, and a symbol of national pride. Most countries have clubs that play each other, just as our US ones do for the sports mentioned above, however there is a long standing history of this sport for those fans, just as there is for US fans of our team sports. So, that is a part of it. But The World Cup is, much like the Olympics, an opportunity for countries to prove to the rest of the world just how impressive they are on the pitch, how well they can defend and score and to give bragging rights to all others that they are the best in the game.
Sure, the Americans call it the “World Series,” but it’s not really, when you see that only one Canadian and twenty-nine US teams can ever play in it. It’s the same with the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals. These sports are insulated. We only get to see a true world Basketball tourney in the Olympics. Major League Baseball is helping with the “World Baseball Classic,” but even that is in its infancy and still needs some work to become something that has a lasting quality.
No, clearly Football is one of the true “international” sports. But there has been a vicious cycle that has held it from succeeding in the States.
Soccer is not a money making sport here. Which means that not only aren’t there the facilities to equal the amenities available in the other major sports, making soccer appear as “second rate” to potential fans, which keeps them away, which means less money available for those teams. But also, athletes who might consider a professional career would not even consider soccer as an option, so the players that could potentially make the game even more exciting are playing other sports! The average salary of a Men’s pro soccer player is 85,000 dollars, which doesn’t sound bad, but compare it to the average salary of a Men’s pro basketball player, which is about 2 million dollars.
But, believe it or not, I think this World Cup season may help to make Soccer more interesting for Americans and the reason why: Television. With the HD coverage and the cameras that are available to cover the action, we are getting closer than ever to being on the field with the players. We can see their actions and reactions in a way that simply wasn’t possible during the last World Cup in 2006. And when it comes to sports, it’s about knowing the players, seeing their personalities, understanding what they’re trying to do and feeling the heart in their game. Now, we actually have a squad that has those qualities, and we have a way of letting the country view that from a better than front row seat!
This doesn’t work as well for American Football, because the players there are geared up in helmets and pads that don’t permit you to see them much of the time, so this sport has some hope for gaining some personality recognition. It doesn’t hurt that the Head Coach of the USA team, Bob Bradley has his son Michael Bradley on the squad, and Landon Donavan, the most prolific scorer, wouldn’t look bad in a Nike Ad. Plus captain Carlos Bocanegra is a name you really should know, and the entire squad is filled with interesting players, like DeMarcus Beasley, who left the US to make a good living playing in Europe, or Tim Howard, who says his Tourette’s Syndrome might actually make him a better goalie.
Soccer is a sport we all played at some point in our lives, whether it was in grade school with classmates, high school in intramural games or college against other universities. It’s a worthy sport and a challenging one. So as you watch some of the coverage of the World Cup Tournament, and you should at least watch some of it, understand the qualities of the game and the players of it. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a hint of what the folks in the rest of our Global Village have been rioting about for years.