Like most Americans, I was sound asleep early this morning as Brazil played Germany in Yokohama, Japan, for the 2002 World Cup soccer championship. Basically, we don't follow soccer ("futbol" in much of the world) because there's not enough scoring, and it isn't violent enough. And that's that!
"Years of experience tell me that the one column not to write this week is a soccer column," wrote AOL sports columnist John Feinstein last Tuesday. Ignoring his good advice, however, I wonder why soccer hasn't become our national sport with so many American kids playing the international game these days. As Feinstein observed, "Soccer is fun. It's a great kids sport because one doesn't have to be a special size to play and it takes minimal equipment. It teaches kids teamwork and sportsmanship and is less likely to produce injuries than most sports."
Nevertheless, even though the U.S. team made it to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in more than 70 years, American sports fans stayed away in droves, and TV ratings were pathetic. The talented U.S. team -- featuring mostly American-born players for a change -- made an early morning appearance on the "Today" show last week before vanishing for another four years. That's the way it is with soccer in our country. But why?
My first experience with soccer (I use the term loosely) was when I was a kid in Seattle and we played a version of the sport with only two requirements: heavy boots and a used tennis ball. The idea was to kick the other guy in the shins before he kicked you; the tennis ball was incidental to the proceedings. Today, playground soccer is probably banned in Seattle and throughout the U.S. on grounds that it damages the self-esteem of the kickees -- as opposed to the kickers, who enjoy it. How times have changed.
We argued about soccer's popularity in the U.S. when I supervised Spanish-language broadcasting at the Voice of America in Washington about 25 years ago. One of our announcers, an Argentine named Luis Daniel Uncal, was VOA's Voice of Futbol in Latin America. Although he did his best to convince me that futbol would become our national sport within 30 years, I stuck with baseball, basketball and American football. And today I can say, OK Luis Daniel, I told you so. Professional soccer is still a massive turnoff in the United States.
In the late 1970s (when I was at the VOA), professional soccer enjoyed a popularity boomlet when U.S. teams were able to recruit foreign stars like Brazil's Pele, Holland's Johan Cruyff and Italy's Giorgio Chinaglia. The people running the North American Soccer League got carried away and called futbol "the sport of the 80s." But just when it seemed inevitable that soccer would become a big-time sport, it all but disappeared because the league had stretched itself too thin with 24 teams.
Then came 1994, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup for the first time. Again, American sports fans paid attention to futbol for a few days before returning to Michael Jordan and Joe Montana. Five years later, the U.S. women's team won the world soccer championship as Brandi Chastain scored her famous shirt-ripping penalty kick goal to decide yet another boring 0-0 game. The result was a big jump in sports bra sales as thousands of teenage girls yearned to Be Like Brandi. And today, Brandi (whose grandparents live in Carson City, by the way) and her male counterparts toil in relative obscurity on major league soccer fields around the country as we continue to follow the NBA playoffs, the Super Bowl and the World Series.
New York Times political columnist William Safire discussed the geopolitical significance of the World Cup last week in a column titled "The Politics of Futbol." "U.S. foreign-policy maker... hoped fervently from the start that the U.S. team would make a respectable showing but not win," he wrote. "If the U.S. team had come out of nowhere to defeat the best of all nations of the world ... such a triumph would have been a psychological bummer for the rest of the world and thus a diplomatic disaster for us." According to Safire, "Because we lost honorably, doing better than expected, the U.S. won by losing." As I've been saying all along, diplomacy is a complicated and psychologically complex business.
Safire's diplomatic sports theory reminds me of the time that Colombia hosted an international basketball tournament while I was stationed in Bogota. The championship game pitted a very experienced Soviet Union team against the U.S., which was represented by a group of small college (NAIA) all-stars. After the USSR won by 8 or 10 points, I told a Soviet KGB agent that we had lost on purpose in order to ingratiate ourselves with the Colombians. Ivan the secret agent believed me and that's how I initiated a minor international incident. Fun!
Back to soccer, I agree with AOL's Feinstein, who urged those who are "reveling in all of these predawn games to continue to revel. (And) those who don't care about any of those games should continue not to care. But there's no reason to fight about it." After all, futbol is just a game.
LIBRARY DONATION: Is the Carson City Library so desperate for cash that it had to accept a $500 public donation from infamous Moonlight Bunnyranch owner Dennis Hof, who proudly describes himself as "America's Pimp?" I don't think so. How about you?
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.
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