CAROLINA CRISIS: THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU By Michael...
A Small Step Forward, Part 2
(TALLAHASSEE)-As the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup kick off today, there has to be both an air of excitement and sadness over the host nation. Brazil faces off against perennial power house Germany at 4pm EDT on ESPN but does so without its unquestioned star, Neymar. The FC Barcelona man who’s scored four times for the Selecao is out for the remainder of the World Cup and probably a lot longer after suffering a fractured vertebrae courtesy of Colombia defender Juan Zuniga’s knee.
To understand how much of a blow this is, not just to Brazil’s team but to the country, you’d have to been in Brazil as I was for two weeks. This kid was everywhere. He got the biggest cheers and the most chants of his name. He was on every other TV commercial. Every other billboard. 80% of the famed Brazil yellow jerseys had his name and number on the back. If soccer is a religion in Brazil, then he was its resident pastor, shepherding Brazil through the valley of darkness for he was truly Brazil’s keeper…er striker and the finder of lost goal opportunities.
I’m not sure we’ve not seen any sports figure in recent memory stateside whose health status had the entire country on edge and whose absence from the big stage was understood to be a major tragedy. Michael Jordan’s first retirement perhaps, but I doubt anyone in New York was mourning that.
This came to mind as I began to read the various articles discussing the impact of the US’ World Cup campaign and the attention it generated stateside. With the US now out, the general assumption is that the majority of American sports fans will now ignore the sport and pick it up again when the World Cup comes back around in 2018, assuming the US qualify again.
I won’t pretend that there’s not much truth in that. Anyone under the illusion that most Americans will now “embrace” soccer for the lack of a better term will certainly be disappointed come September.
No worries; yet predictably the “Death to Soccer” sentiment has already begun. A column in last Thursday’s Washington Post went on and on about how much better American football is as a sport than soccer and a well-known female conservative talked about the growth of soccer as a sign of America’s moral decay. Not invading another country looking for non-existent weapons or stripping the tools that’s guaranteed voting rights for a generation. Soccer.
Others such as NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing for Time Magazine, use the US’ loss and the soon to be dwindling interest in the rest of the Cup, to reiterate the tired myopic view that soccer “won’t work” here in the US.
Abdul-Jabbar’s column was decidedly less hostile to the sport itself than the usually anti-soccer drivel that we have started to see less of over the past 15-20 years. After minimizing the exceptional TV ratings for this year’s Cup, especially for US matches, and explaining away the average attendance of MLS games which outdraw, on average, both the NBA and NHL, he came with a genteel, eloquent way of saying soccer is boring and “won’t work”:
“We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse.”
This doesn’t explain golf or 3 and a half-hour baseball games but whatever.
What I found most interesting, was in his closing paragraph, where he stated “Clearly, there are many dedicated soccer fans in the U.S. They play the sport, they watch the sport, they love the sport. But that group, though slowly growing, is not nearly enough to overcome the traditional favorite.”
This is the thing that aggravates me about people who know nothing of soccer or those of us who play, watch and love the sport: the delusion that we as soccer fans are trying have the sport “overcome” anything.
Which sport are we supposedly trying to overcome? Why is there this belief amongst those who don’t follow the game that we sit around in our little soccer terrorist cells trying to unleash a futbol jihad on unsuspecting innocent NASCAR fans? Is there a counter-terrorism taskforce waiting for us to announce our intention to convert Little Leagues to futbolistas, shouting “THERE IS NO GOD BUT PELE MARADONA AND LIONEL RONALDO IS HIS MESSENGER!! GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Those who know me know that my other favorite sport is basketball and that I have been a die-hard Lakers fan since the 80s. To this day I have much admiration for Abdul-Jabbar, not only for the fact the he scored over 39,000 points with basically one shot but also because he’s intelligent, writes knowledgably about a range of historical topics and destroyed everyone every time he was on Celebrity Jeopardy.
I’m also old enough to remember that there was time when the then 30-year old NBA was a poorly attended, barely watched league with portions of the playoffs and its version of the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, was shown on tape delay in some parts of the country. Abdul-Jabbar should remember these times as well as they were during some of his most productive years in the league and the Lakers won the 1980 Finals, which was shown via said tape delay in many parts of the country.
There was no quick fix to turn the NBA into the international juggernaut that basketball fans know and love today.
It simply took time.
Will soccer ever become a juggernaut sport in the way basketball has become? Who knows. If it does it will take time.
But those who simply conclude that soccer “won’t work” haven’t been paying attention. It IS working in this country evidenced primarily that this has even become subject of discussion.
But beyond that several instances demonstrate how the game has gotten a foothold here. While Abdul-Jabbar and others dismiss the ratings (without taking into account the number of fans who packed FOOTBALL stadiums to watch the US play) he and others can’t explain away the fact Americans attended the 3 group matches in Natal, Manaus and Recife in high numbers, having at least half the fans at the match I attended in Natal and probably half of the fans in Recife for the Germany match. Over 19,000 people watched the US defeat Costa Rica in a Colorado snow storm during World Cup qualifying and a growing number of Americans are going to Estadio Azteca during each qualifying phase to view one of the world’s most bitter rivalries.
But if that attention can be chalked up to the type of patriotism similar to that of the Olympics, there is the matter of MLS. When the United States hosted the World Cup 20 years ago, there was no recognized professional league. MLS only launched two years later to plenty of cynics who said soccer “won’t work” and did so in only 10 cities. Two teams would later be contracted and the league lost substantial money in its early years. Today, the league boasts 19 teams, 21 in 2015, has expanded in to football cities like Atlanta and Seattle, is attracting good talent from around the world and is headed toward league wide profitability, albeit slowly.
No quick fix. Just time.
But it’s not just the business side that demonstrates where soccer is taking a hold. It’s the scenes like I saw over the weekend here in football-mad Tallahassee where I saw a father taking his enthusiastic son through drills. It’s American high school kids with whom I played pick up calling out which international star player they were emulating (Neymar, Messi, Rooney etc.) the way I did playing pick up basketball 35 years ago. It’s the conversation I heard at Gold’s Gym that suggested that Tim Howard should have been allowed to advance to the quarterfinals by himself or people asking others if they had seen the latest “Things Tim Howard Can Save” installment on Twitter. It’s my 91 year old grandmother telling me how she’s watching the matches. If that’s happening in the land of the Seminole and the lair of the Rattler, what’s the scene like in LA these days?
Will ALL of this momentum carry into next year’s Gold Cup or the Copa America in 2016. No, not all of it and it’s foolish to think so. But when one compares the interest in the game as it exists now compared to 20 years ago, it’s impossible to deny that the growth has been exponential.
In other words, it’s working. Without trying to “overcome” anything.
So stop hitting the snooze button, resuscitate and shake off the myopia or the wishful thinking that soccer is going away. That boat has left. The real question is where we will be in another 20 years because what we saw this year was the off-the-field aspect of soccer taking another small step in America.
The trick is making the next step a little longer.