Jumping on the soccer bandwagon
June 21, 2002
I’m on the soccer bandwagon.
Of course, by the time you read this, the United States may have lost to Germany this morning and be out of the World Cup. If that’s the case, then I’m off the soccer bandwagon for another four years. Oh, well.
But there’s a chance the U.S. team will have won its biggest match in history for the second time in a week and is headed for the quarterfinals.
Soccer fans, I salute you.
Up at 4:30 this morning, you tuned in to watch a team that most of America wouldn’t recognize if they were on a Wheaties box. (Have they been on a Wheaties box? I don’t know. They should be, though.)
It’s a mystery to the rest of the world, and a great source of commentary, why Americans can’t understand football. Can’t even call it by the right name. Can’t work up the kind of rabid emotion the rest of the world has for soccer, the kind of rabid emotion reserved for “helmet football” in the United States, a sport the rest of the world thinks is woefully uncivilized.
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But slowly, slowly, America is waking up to soccer. Kids for the past dozen years or so have been playing as much soccer as any other sport, so they’ll have the kind of participatory experience that most adults never had.
The only recollection I have of playing soccer in high school was the time I shoved the PE teacher a little too hard when we were both going for the ball. It had everything to do with the PE teacher and nothing to do with soccer.
At my high school, soccer was on par with, say, kickball or the trampoline. It wasn’t a real sport.
In college in the 1970s, I went to a school that had a nationally ranked soccer team. Nobody cared. (We gave them good coverage in the student newspaper, but it was still the same 100 people who went to the matches.)
One of the reasons I think soccer eventually will catch on in the United States — as one columnist said, at least as big as the National Hockey League — is the opportunity for truly international play every four years in the World Cup.
There’s nothing Americans like better than to show our athletic superiority over other countries, but we don’t get much opportunity outside the Olympics. The World Cup should, at least, inspire that kind of patriotism.
We’re nowhere close to that now. In fact, that’s partly why citizens of other countries get so annoyed. When the U.S. team knocked off Mexico on Monday, people in Juarez were actually being hostile toward Americans — who had no idea what all the fuss was about.
As Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show, Mexico needed that win a lot more than the United States.
The other reason U.S. fans haven’t gotten too excited about soccer, of course, is that the team generally has stunk.
The rest of the world — including France, for crying out loud — could kick our butts up one side of the international block and down the other. I suspect soccer got its reputation for being such an elegant sport simply to rub in the fact that those hick Yankees still didn’t get it.
Now, the U.S. is competitive. So are South Korea, Senegal and Turkey. Explain that.
As the melting pot of the world, the United States should be able to compete with anyone on anything. I’m proud of the fact you can’t tell, simply by looking at the players or reading the names on the back of their jerseys, what country they’re from.
There’s also the fact that we tend not to give up until we succeed, a sentiment summed up nicely by Michael Davies, who is writing about the World Cup for ESPN’s Web site and came to the defense of the U.S. team, which was transformed in this tournament from laughingstock to despised.
“I’m a proud Briton, and I cheer for Europe in the Ryder Cup,” Davies wrote, “but I cannot understand anyone who could ever underestimate the ability, professionalism and sheer toughness of U.S. athletes.
“Americans are simply superb at sports. It’s not just facilities, the money, the infrastructure or the weather (but spend a winter — or summer, for that matter — in the North of England, and you’ll know what an advantage that is), it is the winning mentality, the frontier thesis, the ‘we made it over them thar mountains, we can make it over anything’ psychology, the tournament toughness that is absorbed by each successive generation from the one before. Americans are not used to losing; they grow up watching Americans win.”
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.
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