Americans not interested in the World Cup? Who cares!
By Joel Dreyfuss
When the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament opens this weekend, I won't bother to read the usual stories about how the whole world is excited -- except the U.S. I promise I will not read yet another story about how Americans just don't get the beauty, the elegance and the deep strategic subtleties of soccer. And I'll do my best not to listen to the dependable pack of shock jocks who will use the month-long event as an opportunity to sneer about a) foreigners, b) guys in shorts and c) low-scoring games.
Like a lot of soccer fans, I don't care anymore that a majority of my fellow Americans will not be watching the "beautiful game" with the same anticipation and excitement shared by billions around the world. In fact, millions of us in the U.S. will be focused on every match from South Africa; millions of us will cheer the underdog U.S. national team -- British bookmakers give us a 50-1 chance of winning the tournament -- an improvement over the 200-1 odds eight years ago -- and unless a miracle pulls America into the final rounds, we'll root for France, Argentina, the Ivory Coast or another team that catches our fancy.
Like many of the most ardent supporters of the game in America, I'm an immigrant. When I go to an international match in the U.S., a good portion, even a majority, of the crowd are immigrants or second-generation ethnics: Greeks, Italians, Jamaican, Koreans, Mexicans, Nigerians, or Serbians -- depending on the location and the teams playing. My dad played in Haiti, and I started kicking a ball around there at age 3 or 4 before we moved to Europe and Africa. After we settled in America, I played on high school and college teams. I later coached my son when he took an interest in the game. I've been to see two World Cups, and I'll buy seats for any good visiting foreign team. Major League Soccer? I can't get too excited about the U.S. version yet.
It took a while, but American broadcasters finally figured out that there were economic benefits to catering to the immigrant market. This year every game will be on U.S. TV, offered in English on ESPN and ABC and on Spanish-language television. This is great progress. As late as the 1970s, you had to go on a quest to see any important international soccer match in New York, even the World Cup. My dad and I hunted down movie theaters in immigrant neighborhoods to see games in grainy, flickering images. If soccer made American TV at all, important matches were on tape delay, hours or even days after the game ended. Invariably, we knew the score before we saw the match.
The quality of soccer in the U.S. has grown vastly over the last two decades. An improving U.S. national men's team -- and the success of the women's national team (a real world power) has help build some "native" interest in soccer. Millions of Americans watched the U.S. men's team play in the quarter finals of the World Cup in Japan and Korea in 2002. But, as I said, I'm not going to fret this time that very few of my friends in New York and Washington are obsessing about Didier Drogba's broken arm or the hole in England's defense without Rio Ferdinand.
There's still a certain amount of snobbishness in following international soccer from the U.S. It doesn't rank up there with squash racquets peeking out of your briefcase, but by rooting for proper "football," you join that secret society of snobs who talk 4-4-2 versus 3-5-2 lineups and actually understand the offside rule. I have to admit, since it's gotten a lot easier to be a soccer snob, that's probably not a good thing for exclusivity. But there are definite benefits in being able to lie on your couch over the next several weeks and flip your remote between two World Cup matches.
Joel Dreyfuss is the managing editor of The Root.
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