Will America ever love soccer like Brazilians?
The following is a guest post by Dan Friedman, a former captain of the Cambridge University soccer team, a contributor to the New York Times soccer blog and a qualified New Jersey soccer coach. He is also the Arts and Culture editor for the Jewish Daily Forward. The opinions expressed are his own.
As Africa hosts the biggest sporting tournament the world has ever seen, the world is watching. Huddled around television sets in favelas and townships, villages and suburbs, towns and cities across the globe, billions will tune into FIFA’s World Cup 2010. By whatever name — football, calcio, futbol — soccer truly is the world’s game.
Across Europe, Asia and Africa, advertisers are falling all over themselves to endorse official products and to use players and logos in their spots. But not in America, the richest, and arguably most sports mad, country in the world. Here the desperate hype of those outlets that have the rights to cover the tournament barely makes itself heard over the NBA and Stanley Cup finals.
Still, despite the absence through injury of David Beckham — the only soccer player instantly recognizable to most Americans — the mouthwatering opening game against England on Saturday has garnered some attention. When these two teams last met — in the 1950 World Cup — the motley American team of semi-professionals pulled off an amazing upset in Belo Horizonte, Brazil against England’s self-styled “Kings of Football.”
But what was the outcome of the American team’s “miracle on grass”? Silence, general apathy and a return to watching baseball for those who had even paid the slightest attention to the soccer. Despite the glamorous but ill-fated North American Soccer League of the 1970s, it took almost half a century and the intervention of Henry Kissinger to bring the 1994 World Cup to the United States. And within three years “The Simpsons” was already lampooning soccer as a sport so boring that it bred hooliganism between supporters fighting to leave the stadium first.
As the teams walk onto the field in Rustenberg, South Africa this Saturday, there will be a sizeable viewing audience in America. Perhaps it will be difficult to measure the exact number since American patriots and English expats will crowd into bars to watch the game. But the passion will be for the event, not the game. Although more Americans play soccer than ever before, although the women’s team is the reigning Olympic champion and although the MLS is improving quality year by year, America doesn’t love the game the way Brazil loves the game.
In John Cleese’s 2006 documentary “The Art of Football from A to Z” he compares the brief spurts of action in football to the longer freeform periods of play in soccer: “Football is played like a series of advertizing jingles while soccer is played like jazz.” America hasn’t yet grasped the fact that soccer is much more like baseball than football. It’s a game of the head played with the body through a hundred years of history and culture.
After losing to Uruguay in the 1950 final, the Brazilians went through a period of soul-searching. Mixing the samba with skill and fitness they produced Pele and his cohorts who drove the exhilarating and dominating Brazilian soccer teams to win the World Cup in 1958, 1962 and 1970 while inspiring, with their stylish play, the phrase “Jogo Bonito” — the beautiful game. Unlike America and even Europe, Brazilians love the game not only with their hearts and their heads but also their hips.
As an Englishman in New York, raised on the disappointments of my home team Leeds United and a national team who expect to win each World Cup but have only won it once, 44 years ago, I am all too aware of the dangers of the passion I am trying to teach my young American daughters. They are still young, but I hope that, whether they support England or America on Saturday they will love the game like Brazilians.
Read related commentary: “Dreams of a Rabid Fan.”
Top: A Brazilian soccer fan sings as he watches the World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Ghana in Rio de Janeiro June 27, 2006. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes
Bottom: A fan waves the U.S. flag during a USA versus Turkey international friendly soccer match in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 29, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer