From pictures of Barack Obama watching in apparent rapt attention on Air Force One, to videos of him publicly telephoning the squad and telling them “You did us proud!” it seems like America has finally ‘got’ football – and got it bad! On the day after the American team was eliminated from the World Cup by Belgium, ‘USA Today’ reported that despite the defeat, “soccer in America…got nothing but a big win!”
Cossetted in his penthouse in Brazil, such comments must warm the cockles of Sepp Blatter’s heart. If the 78 year-old danced a little Swiss jig of joy that his sport has finally broken into the most lucrative market in the world however, he probably should temper his exaltation and read on a little. The article goes on the say that “Did everyone understand the rules? Most certainly not. Will a lot of the people who watched the game stop caring about soccer tomorrow morning? Absolutely.” Hmm, perhaps not so much on the big breakthrough then, eh Sepp? So, USA. All that ‘soccer’ thing. How’s that working out for you?
64 years ago, the World Cup was also held in Brazil. England, all full of self-importance, had deigned to take part for the first time, and duly received its first – but by no means last – international football humiliation when a scratch team from the USA defeated them 1-0 in Belo Horizonte. A recent CNN report said that news of the result was contained in “a short story, buried on the fourth page of the sports supplement…of the New York Times.” The only US reporter to attend the game was the wonderfully-named Dent McSkimming. The St Louis Post-Dispatch journalist was however there at his own expense, and although he penned the famous quote that it was as if “Oxford University sent a baseball team… and beat the Yankees,” the ‘folks back home’ didn’t really know much about football and the World Cup, or care that much either. Things may have changed somewhat since then however.
American sport is often described as being stat-obsessed, so here’s a few to consider. American supporters bought 196,838 tickets for the World Cup, second only to fans from Brazil. For those who didn’t travel however, the tournament was still a big attraction. The 2-2 draw with Portugal attracted some 25 million viewers; the highest figures for a game in America. More than 14 million viewers tuned in for the USA-Germany match. This was despite it being broadcast at noon EDT. Just to offer a comparison, Baseball’s 2013 World Series averaged only 15 million viewers on Fox and the NBA Finals delivered a similar figure for ABC. The game is now the second most popular youth sport in America and the MLS has a higher average attendance record than the NBA and the NHL despite only being around for some 20 years. That’s some impressive, stats, right there. Almost deserves a ‘high five.’ Yo!
Speaking after the defeat to Belgium, the online version of the Daily Mail reported that Jurgen Klinsmann, German manager of the USA team, summed up the growth of the game over the pond. He said “You see where the game is going in the United States. You can’t stop it anymore. It’s breaking through.” What d’ya say!
Well, perhaps. There’s still much resistance though. Gerry Callahan, famous columnist for the Boston Herald, argues that all of this interest is less about football, than that the World Cup is a “big event” and American sports fans love a big event. In a recent column published ahead of the Belgium game, he mused that “We have no interest in horse racing, but we watched the Belmont Stakes because California Chrome had a chance to make history. Every four years we watch Michael Phelps even though nothing is more boring than swimming, except maybe figure skating. You know how many people watched Nancy vs. Tonya in Lillehammer? Only 126 million. Big event. One of the biggest. No one wants to miss that.”
Ever the purveyor of reasoned opinion however, the clearly football-obsessed Gerry goes on to say “I will watch today, and if the US pulls off the upset, I’ll watch again on Saturday. And I’ll admit: Something is happening here, and it’s not just an over-the-top ESPN production. I’ll concede that soccer is making great strides in this country and we are gaining on the rest of the world, and in the United States, the next World Cup will be bigger than this one. But if Belgium wins? You have to leave me alone. Hate to break it to you, but I’m watching because of the good old USA, not because of soccer.” I’m guessing that after Romelu Lukaku’s contribution, Gerry has left the building!
‘Making it’ in America is always the big test in the entertainment business, and despite the thoughts and pronouncements of ‘naysayers’ like Gerry Callahan, there’s little doubt that football now has more than a foothold in the American sporting consciousness. One of the reasons why there may be more of a lasting effect this time round, rather than in the days of the NASL that collapsed in the early 1980s is that this time, rather than being full of imported players, there’s an American core to most MSL teams, and the national team is competing effectively on the world stage.
So, you see Gerry, football is becoming part of “the good old USA” as much as “the good old USA” is becoming part of football.” You’re actually welcoming it on board. Going back to that USA Today report, it also said “Is soccer going to replace the NFL tomorrow? Of course not. But you can bet a few more people will start tuning in to Premier League games on Saturday morning or go to an MLS game when the Sounders bring U.S. stars Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin to town. It’s been said that soccer’s growth in this country is a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of thing, but the game took a big leap in this country on Tuesday. The United States has a team they can be proud of, a team the nation will look forward to watching in the future, and a sport it is learning to understand and love more and more.” Touchdown!
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘touchlinebanter’ website).
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