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…