If you don’t think the United States is a soccer-mad nation, how can you explain the level of disappointment felt by so many millions of Americans today?
For years now, I have been hearing ill-informed commentators opine that soccer will never make it in this country because the game is too low-scoring, too uneventful. This from a group of journalists who openly embraces the greatness of a “sport” called golf.
A word to the unwise — soccer has already made it here. I haven’t been to any place in the Bay Area in the past four days where there was not a discussion of the World Cup. And that includes Holy Cross Cemetery in the dead zone of Colma, where on Friday my family and I laid my stepmother to rest. One of the cemetery supervisors named Glenn watched the memorial service with quiet reverence, and when I got closer to him to ask a question, I noticed he was wearing a tie adorned with soccer balls.
We were praying for Margaret. Glenn, it turns out, was praying for the Netherlands.
Even with the poor showing by the U.S. squad on Monday against a very good Czech Republic team, there is no doubt that football, the kind played by people without helmets, has found a permanent place on the national sporting scene. Major League Soccer in the United States will never have the kind of attendance or ratings numbers seen by the best club teams in Europe, but they have remained fairly steady.
More important, MLS exists as the training ground for the best American players — as evidenced by the fact that half of the U.S. national team roster now playsfor teams in the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga. One could argue that one of the reasons teams are better prepared to play against the U.S. is that they have to prepare for them now — something that didn’t occur in previous World Cups in which the team qualified.
It may be some pre-tournament hype, but some of the best players in the world have recently stated that they wouldn’t mind ending their playing careers in the United States, in much the same way Pele did when he joined the New York Cosmos and briefly invigorated soccer interest here 30 years ago. Clearly the level of understanding of the world’s biggest game here has grown by leaps and headers — just check out the attendance figures when Manchester United and Real Madrid come to play friendlies on our shore. There probably isn’t a kid in America who hasn’t heard of David Beckham or Ronaldo, and certainly all you need to do is attend any park on any weekend and see hundreds and thousands of tots and teens chasing those very bright balls.
Soccer is the one major sport where the U.S. has actually made major advances — just the opposite of basketball, baseball and hockey, where the country has done poorly in international competition in recent years. The U.S. team that went to Hamburg, Germany, this month arrived tied with Spain for fifth in the world FIFA rankings. They certainly didn’t play like it Monday, but it’s the highest ranking a U.S. squad has ever achieved. If the FIFA rankings don’t reflect reality, neither do the soccer naysayers, who insist the beautiful game is lost on indifferent Americans.
Even if the men’s national team doesn’t equal its success in the 2002 World Cup, when they reached the quarterfinals and outplayed Germany before losing by a goal, we still have the women’s team to look forward to next year — it has won numerous world championships and is a contender every year. If you think women’s soccer isn’t popular in the U.S., then it would be fairto say that you’ve had your head in the sand trap.
So will it all be for naught if the U.S. doesn’t make it out of the first round this month, and gets thumped in the process? Hardly. The team got arguably the toughest draw in the tournament. Will there be disappointment and concern? Plenty. And coach Bruce Arena will likely be heavily criticized by the press for not having his team ready to play and for making tactical and personnel decisions that had the Americans as long shots to advance.
But that is true of every team and coach in Europe and South America whose team enters the World Cup with high expectations. The difference is that the level of scrutiny elsewhere is so intense that careers are threatened and the countries mourn for months. Here we just move on to another sports season.
That level of interest will change, simply because it already has.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.