By Jason Keidel
At the risk of painting myself as a stereotypically American, imperialist pig, I expose the soccer mythology – which, of course, is football everywhere but in America because we have our own brand of football, thank you very much.
Our team made a reasonable showing down in Brazil, and because the pilates crowd watched and belched some new soccer bromides, they’re a little more evolved than they were two weeks ago, and way more refined than the rest of us mouth-breathers who still admit we need a little more action in our athletics.
You’ll notice the ratings for this World Cup are highest in the Northeast, where folks try rather hard to look most enlightened. And you may also notice by the time the U.S. team lost to Belgium, some of them had already jumped ship. According to the New York Post, ESPN saw higher ratings when we played Portugal, even though the match with Belgium was more important.
Why the high numbers for a few weeks? We have the emergence of the part-time sports enthusiasts, sprouting up like weeds for the trendy event. You know the type. On fall Sundays they order red wine at the bar during a Jets game, never owned an article of sports apparel in their pretentious lives. They ask for a tofu burger and a glass of water on the side, heads buried in their iPhones, peeking upward when they hear the cheers, pretending they know the score, or the deal. They singe our sensibilities.
So is the incongruity of this World Cup crowd. No doubt a few fannies in every pub belonged to authentic fans, who watch Liverpool and AC Milan and Real Madrid with maniacal fervor. But the rest were climbing over each other to sound the most sophisticated, armed with the new nomenclature of the Beautiful Game. This fortnight of soccer was seen as the highbrow sporting event of the year. It reveals our sense of tolerance and inclusion. We are somehow brighter just by dint of our fleeting interest.
Yet once that final goal cut through the net and our World Cup dreams, the poseurs slithered back to their cubicles and corporate softball games, pretending they had an “experience” with the globe, a fictional, one-world group hug that’s about as palpable as a comic book. It’s as if we’re suddenly the Greek Empire, halting wars just for the aesthetic splendor of sports.
If soccer were so flowering then why do we have this very discussion every four years? Why can’t we name three American players a month before or after the tournament? Why can’t we name two American soccer teams? Can we name one MLS player? Can you say who won the MLS title last year?
People want to look cool and sound smart, and the human tidal wave at the local bar was the place to be, adding an octave to a game you never watched until you were 30. You think you’re part of an ideal, the last stop on the long road of evolution. Sure.
Take a look at HBO’s “Real Sports” account of the rampant racism at soccer stadiums throughout Europe. Much of it is so appalling we can’t even repeat it on these pages. Between Swastikas and medieval chants, the decorum in some nooks of the Beautiful Game is in direct contradiction to their supposedly more sophisticated wares.
And the racism was felt all up and down the ranks. Soccer icon Thierry Henry told Bryant Gumbel about being spit on, the vulgar vernacular at his games – even an unprintable, racist rant from an opposing coach – and how the climate persists today. American Jozy Altidor talked about getting off a team bus and being called every bigoted stereotype in the catalogue. HBO played horrific montages of fans throwing bananas at players, which need no subtitle.
Of course, that conduct doesn’t represent all soccer fans. It’s just annoying to hear how savage Americans are, when, in fact, we are more tolerant and inclusive than any nation on the planet. We just have more – and better – games at our fingertips.
We can go all socioeconomic, make the recycled assertion that soccer is usually played the most where money is least. If you got some bank, you play ball with new equipment on a verdant field for palpable stakes, not on some dusty, third-world, weed-coated parking lot. Obviously, not all soccer players are poor. Indeed, that notion is as exaggerated as the idea that if you love American sports you’re some xenophobic beast who needs a decade of anger management class.
And no, it’s not about national pride, at least not to the extent we pretend it is. If it were, then why don’t we see this high-pitch patriotism every four years in the Olympics? Maybe we latch onto a gymnast, skier, or skater for a few days, wrap ourselves in Old Glory, mouth the anthem, and wink at the foreigner down the bar while he broods in his beer. But it’s never more than that.
Nothing wrong with watching a World Cup game in the absence of something more meaty. The NBA season is over. The NFL doesn’t wind up for a few months. The Yanks and Mets will meet the same September fate. And the Rangers fell a few goals short.
So some soccer is on television. And there were a few gripping narratives along the way. We have our rare role as underdog. The mysterious nature of playing in Brazil, literally in the jungle, the hot, moss-coated oven of piranhas and black panthers, in a mud bowl of a game against Germany, during a monsoon. And the lingering, cynical sense that we really had no chance but rode the fractions as far as we could until that bell banged midnight on our soccer Cinderella. Add that to the emotional blender of political angst and a slice of Americana and you have a little theater.
But are we more apt to follow “futbol” now? Is this really the next MMA or more like the Macarena? We coined the term Soccer Mom ostensibly to welcome a nouveaux, nuanced generation of sports enthusiast. How’s that going? Mikey might play a little soccer on the side, but his heart still dwells in the wholly American dream of a Game 7 home run or Eli to Tyree or a leather ball sliding down some twine just in time.
If soccer is to grow, we need a tangible, signature win. Losing is not a viable, American algorithm. There’s the paradox. America won’t care about soccer until we get better at it. And we won’t get better until we care about it.
Until then, we’ll always take football over futbol.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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