Copa Mundial 2010: why this World Cup is so important for the US

Copa Mundial 2k10 kicked off today in grand fashion, with host South Africa taking a point off of heavily favored Mexico. Tomorrow’s featured match (featured here, anyway) sees the US taking on an even more heavily favored England side that, despite having some of the best talent on the planet, has been lackluster in its pre-Cup tuneups. Of course, the US has been inconsistent, as well – looked good beating Turkey, vulnerable in the back in a loss to the Czechs, and absolutely terrible in an inexplicable win over the Aussies (who played like they were winding up a three-day bender). So grab a beer and we’ll see which teams show up.

A lot rides on the outcome, and not just of this one game. In general, World Cup 2010 is a watershed moment for soccer in the US, and billions of dollars hang in the balance. On the pitch, this American team is as capable as any we’ve had, perhaps ever. And our infrastructure is improving daily, with better youth programs, better intermediate development programs and academies, a rapidly improving pro league and more and more of our top players finding their way into European sides – and the ability to succeed in top-of-the-table sides in England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Holland is the real measure of where you stand in the global food chain.

So you can expect American teams to keep getting better and better, regardless of the result in South Africa.

The reason Copa 2010 is so important, though, is money. If the US gets out of the group stage (not guaranteed, but we should) and perhaps wins in the round of 16, that sends a message to the American sports fan that the US is a serious player in the world’s game. As I noted several years ago, people carp about soccer for a number of reasons (low scoring, for instance), but when push comes to shove, what really keeps us away from MLS parks and televised games is the fact that, well, a lot of pissant little countries are better than we are. And from the limited and jingoistic perspective of the typical American sports fan, if Wherethefuckistan beats you at something, that something isn’t a valid game by definition.

And make no mistake, Americans like to win. We insist on it. We’re used to being the best and at some level we probably feel it’s our right. And frankly, we don’t much trust any sport where godforsaken France is better than us.

Think about it. What sports will Americans plop down their money for? Football? You betcha – and we’re the best at it (of course, that’s pretty much by default, isn’t it?) Baseball? Our game, and we’re the best in the world at it. Hoops? Ditto, although the rest of the world is slowly catching up. Hockey? Ummm, well, we’re #2 right now, and to be honest, our fourth most popular sport draws pathetic TV ratings (which sucks, because I feel like you can’t possibly not love the game if you know a little about it).

What else? Well, to a lesser extent, tennis, golf, maybe even a little track and field. Boxing. Stock car racing. And these are all sports where if we aren’t the best at the moment, we were recently enough and fully expect to be again in the near future. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is pretty much no sport that Americans care enough to watch in significant numbers that we aren’t a world power in.

Lately, though, something has been changing where the American sports consciousness is concerned. About three weeks ago I woke up one morning, flipped on SportsCenter to find that the top story was … not the NBA playoffs. Not the previous evening’s MLB results. Not even – gasp! – the LeBron James free agency soap opera. Nope. It was that the injury to German captain Michael Ballack (he’d been chopped down in an egregiously dirty play in Chelsea’s FA Cup final win against Portsmouth) was going to keep him out of the Cup.

Think about that for a second. It’s SportsCenter. The top story is that the German captain has been ruled out of the World Cup. This was certainly the 7th Sign. All across America walls were bleeding, velvet Elvises were crying, storm clouds were gathering over deserted soccer fields, fallen angels were materializing in truck stop restrooms with cryptic messages for the Earth’s leaders…

Still, if you’ve been paying attention, you realize that most American media outlets have been taking futbol a lot more seriously of late, and ESPN never misses a chance to inject some goal or another into its plays of the day. ESPN’s interest is obvious – they televise MLS and have picked up the contract to carry Premiership games in the UK (some of which make their way onto ESPN2 HD), and we can probably expect more of this during the coming season.

If the US team earns some glory on the field in South Africa, then perhaps it justifies some of the hype in the mind of Joe Footballfan (who probably even played soccer as a kid, and who’ll perhaps watch a team that makes him feel good about himself before he will one that finds a way to lose to a nation he can’t even find on a map). If the Americans flame out (like they did four years ago), though, ESPN is going to realize a lot less from its investment that it might otherwise.

So best of luck to Landon and Gooch and Jozy and Tim and the Bradley family and the rest of the boys wearing those goddamned awful Nike uniforms. The fate of American marketers rests with your speed, your power and your courage.

Okay, maybe that’s a tad snide.

We all know that if soccer ever becomes the national pastime, it won’t be anytime soon. But there’s plenty of room in this country for the growth of such an engaging sport, and I can easily imagine soccer being a bigger deal in terms of revenues and ratings than hockey is (not hating on hockey here – I wish it were a bigger deal nationwide, as well).

I love the game, and don’t see any reason why you have to choose between soccer and football. We can love all of it, you know? (Isn’t that what America is about? All of it. Hell, that ought to be in the Pledge of Allegiance.) And American success in South Africa moves us a few more steps down that road.

So best of luck to our team – may they stand us all proud over the next couple of weeks…

8 replies »

  1. I think you are pretty right. Now to be taken serious by the rest of the world, you should get in to te right football lingo. It is called football, not futbol, not soccer. You are an English talking nation so it is not Copa Mundial 2k10(?!), just call it what it is named: World Cup 2010!
    And I hope you’ll do good this year, good luck from this Dutch.

    • Frankie: So in order to better communicate with my English speaking nation (America), I should both call it the World Cup and “football”? Because I’m thinking that calling it “football” might create some confusion here. 🙂

      BTW, I LOVE watching the Dutch play. Several of my favorite players are in the side (van Persie comes to mind, and while he’s a bastard, Schneider is awesome, as well; and here’s hoping Robben is okay to play).

      Lex: I’ve often wondered what it would be like if soccer were America’s #1 sport as it is in most places around the world. In the nations that produce the greatest players and teams soccer is the sport of the people – the working class, the poor – but here it’s the domain of more affluent suburban types. Here the underclasses play hoops and football, and we’re damned good at those games.

      So imagine, in an alternate universe, that Jordan, Magic, LeBron, Jerry Rice, Chris Paul, etc. played futbol. Think back to a guy with Pete Maravich’s creativity and hands – what if he’d grown up dribbling a soccer ball? Sweet Jebus – can you imagine a guy with Rice’s hands and athleticism in net? He might NEVER give up a goal. Imagine trying to defend a US team on set pieces when you have athletes with the size and power of a David Thompson flying in over the top of your defensive line for headers. Yow.

      For now, though, we have to accept that we’re taking on everybody’s else’s best with a crop of guys who, although talented and dedicated (some of them very much so), aren’t drawn from the same alpha-type of pool.

  2. And that’s the rub, isn’t it. Americans have to be number one at something or it doesn’t matter. Realistically, the US should already be able to beat most of the European sides given how important athletics are to Americans in general and sheer population. Little tiny Holland can find more, better football players than the US with 300+ million people?

    Once upon a time, real football (that is, a game played with a ball and feet) might have caught on in the US, but the rise of the NFL has pretty much ruined the American sports landscape. If it isn’t an agonizingly slow, staccato game reliant on brute violence and filled with war metaphors (with little thought or strategy) then Americans don’t want it.

    I will say that i laughed again at this line…”Stock car racing.” Which is both true and false. Australians love “stock car racing”; they call it V8 supercars. Europeans take an interest too; they call it Grand Touring Races. Oddly enough, in both cases the cars used are both closer to stock cars than anything in NASCAR. Even better, both cars and drivers are capable of executing a right hand turn. Of course, we only really have NASCAR (with any degree of popular market penetration). The rest of the world gets F1, WRC, etc. while we’re stuck watching rednecks run around in circles. Not to mention the 24 hours of both Le Mans and the Nurburgring and the rest of the endurance series.

  3. “Football? Where’s the helmets? Where’s the pads? Where’s the 300-pound guys slapping each other on the ass? Why don’t those dang players ever stop running??? When am I supposed to get up and get another beer?”

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure Sam should stick to “soccer” for an American audience.

  4. That’s an excellent point, Sam. It would be interesting if the American athletic talent currently funneled into American rugby and basketball developed footballers.