Tuesday, July 6, 2010

World Cup Fever: Can Soccer Become a Permanent US Obsession?

I was getting coffee Tuesday morning and overheard two men talking about the World Cup.  Soccer was "about to explode" in the US according to these grande drip drinkers.  Many of my friends who had know clue who Messi or Miroslav Klose were a month ago can now tell you why Argentina failed and why Germany is such a dominant team.   The World Cup definitely has the US thinking, talking and tweeting soccer like mad.

Didn't we hear this during last World Cup?  I know I did when the World Cup was actually in the United States in 1994.  Six matches were played in the Cotton Bowl.  The great David Beckham walked through our fair town.  None of that, though, translated into a soccer boom.  Sure there might have been some growth but not the exponential kind officials and diehards had hoped.

How long has soccer been the favorite sport of young kids?  At least for a good twenty years.  It hasn't translated into a booming soccer fanbase in the US.  There are packed youth soccer fields across North Texas every Saturday morning with soccer moms and dads as boisterous and passionate as any drunken Philadelphia Eagles fan I've ever seen.  Yet, I've covered plenty MLS soccer games and there are empty seats galore.

The US is trying hard to host the 2018 World Cup.  I've heard from numerous sources that Cowboys Stadium is lobbying hard to host some of the matches.  No doubt that if there is a World Cup back in the States in eight years, it will be a World Cup on steroids.  A very American-sized, McMansion version of the world's favorite sporting event.  HD television and national tv contracts will help but if the World Cup does return, like those McMansions, I think it will be just a temporary boom.

Why is there such a disconnect between soccer and US sports fans?  There are a few here.  However, most of them I know prefer the European leagues to an MLS match any day.  Their passion rivals, if not eclipses, the most obsessed MFFL's or rabid SEC football fan.

I am no soccer expert by any stretch but I can offer some perspective.  I was in Barcelona and Paris during a number of World Cup matches.  Paris is actually one of six major cities, along with Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, Sydney, Mexico City and nine South African cities, to host free, outdoor watching parties called the FIFA Fan Fest.  The Parisian effort was in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and was truly one of those magical settings you experience only once in a lifetime.

I witnessed two matches there: Spain/Honduras and Portugal/North Korea.  It was different from any US watching party event I've attended.  It was better than most actual games I've experienced.  Yes, fans got there early to do their Parisian version of pre-game partying: more champagne and cheese than beer and bbq.  During the game, their rapt intensity was unlike anything I've seen at any other  watching party.  It was a better fan scene than any game at Cowboys Stadium I've been to and most Mavs games.  It rivaled the atmosphere at a Cowboys/Eagles at Veteran's Stadium in Philadelphia and, keep in mind, this was just a watching party. 

When Spain played Chile, I was in Barcelona.  The majority of the matches were in the evening in Europe and this particular match was a citywide, nighttime event.  Las Ramblas, the always-packed pedestrian walkway that runs to the marina in the heart of Barcelona, wasn't deserted but substantially less busy.  I was on a rooftop balcony watching the match and was amazed how you could catch the tenor of the game just by the sounds of the city.  When Spain did something well or scored a goal, cheers erupted throughout the Gothic Quarter.  Spanish expletives were shouted and carried up to the rooftops any time the Spaniards made a mistake.  It was fascinating.

Soccer doesn't capture US hearts like it does the rest of the world.  Maybe it's a testament to our harried, immediate gratification society.  I know the drama of soccer is also lost on a lot of US fans.  There's little end-of-the-game sense of urgency.  No shotclock, 3-2 count with 2 outs left or last play with time running out drama.  The whole extra time thing coupled with the overacting, fake-injured players trying to waste time lend credence to critics who think the sport is ridiculous. 

The sport has a real attraction that is perhaps better experienced in a setting among those who love it.  Is the recent World Cup fever enough to attract US fans and are we on the cusp of a soccer explosion?  I really don't think so.  I think like any fever, this World Cup bug will soon pass.  It will inevitably come back, with predictions of another outbreak forthcoming.  But I think that in the US, it will remain just a passing summer fancy.  Youth soccer will continue to occupy soccer moms schedules year round.  And as for the World Cup, it's just a nice diversion.  It's a temporary, summer occurrence that's a great way to pass the time while counting down the days until football season.
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