The new Landon Donovans
Tomorrow afternoon, a great drama will unfold in Rustenberg, South Africa, one that no matter what happens will be talked about for years to come.
The performance will begin with an unbearably tense prologue: Just before the kickoff of their first match in the 2010 World Cup, the eleven starting players from the U.S.A. and England national teams will line up in the tunnel under the stadium. They’ll walk out single file onto the field, form a straight line and face the main stand. They’ll fidget, jump-up-and down, and chew gum. They’re nervous, but they’ll stand at attention. The national anthems are about to be played.
The English fans, who have been drinking all morning, afternoon, and early evening, will sing “God Save the Queen,” loudly and in perfect unison. The Americans—25,000 to 40,000 are expected to be in South Africa for the world’s most popular sporting event, the most fans of any country—will sing the Star Spangled Banner, while the players hold their hands to their hearts. The English might whistle as a sign of disrespect. They’ll counter the waving stars-and-stripes with both the English flag of St. George and the Union Jack, often with the city they’re from, or the club team they support, painted in white across the red horizontal bar.
The opposing players will shake hands. The two captains, Landon Donovan of the U.S. and Steven Gerrard of England, cross-town adversaries in Liverpool last season, will exchange national crests, and shake hands with the referees. Each squad will pose for a photograph, five players crouched down like baseball catchers, six more above them, standing straight. Then, at last, they will jog out to their positions on the field. The U.S. players may hug one another and shout encouragement for luck. The whistle will blow, the ball will be kicked, and the game will be played.
For soccer has arrived in America. And it’s spreading.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Twenty-five years ago, in 1985, U.S. soccer wallowed in its darkest, dankest days. The once-trendy North American Soccer League, propelled by Pele and the glamorous New York Cosmos, folded, and the American national team failed to qualify for yet another World Cup. Soccer, which was supposed to be the next big thing, turned out to be a novelty.
If soccer couldn’t capitalize on the magic of the late 1970s, the critics screamed, it never would. The American sports calendar was too crowded, they said. Above all, soccer simply was not part of the American culture—it was “too foreign.” All seemed lost until an announcement on, of all days, July 4, 1988: FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, awarded the 1994 World Cup to the U.S. — over Brazil, no less — despite a dearth of fan interest. Another moral boost came the following year when the U.S. qualified for its first World Cup since 1950, when they famously beat … England.
Then came 1994, the new beginning. The average attendance for the World Cup was a staggering 69,000 per game, a record that holds till this day. Team U.S.A. was impressive on the field, and they advanced to the second round. Its players were soon regularly courted by European leagues, the most competitive in the world.
On top of that, there was a venue to nurture young American talent: Major League Soccer. Part of the deal FIFA struck with the U.S. Soccer Federation in awarding the ’94 World Cup was that a professional league would be developed. Two years later, the MLS made its debut. As with any new enterprise, there were growing pains. But lessons were learned from the demise of the NASL. Slowly, things large and small began to change, and the league evolved from respectable to competitive to international.
The growing number of hungry soccer fans in America created enough demand for Fox to launch its own soccer channel. Enthusiasts could now watch top-level foreign games. GolTV, another all-soccer cable network, followed in 2003. Even ESPN broadcast the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, and just shelled out $100 million for broadcasting rights to the 2010 and 2014 games.
By 2007, the wildly overrated David Beckham arrived in L.A. and suddenly the US Weekly crowd was talking about how best to bend direct free kicks. Now Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo, barely covered in their Ivory Coast and Portugal flag underwear, are on the June cover of Vanity Fair. But the World Cup is more than just a highlight on a magazine cover or even our sports calendar. It is a cultural event that people, all people—Americans, Brits, South Africans, Slovenians, Algerians—will reference for years.
When Saturday comes, the English will sing loudly, maybe even drown out the U-S-A chant. England may well win the game this time. After all, they are the better team right now. But to quote Ike in ’43, “our victory is assured.” Long-term, that is. Because when millions of kids see those teams walk out of the tunnel, see the gestures, feel unbearable heightening tension, experience the joy of a goal, or the sting—and bonding—of a loss, they’ll be fans for life, and among those fans will be players, and among those players will be the new Landon Donovans, the new Clint Dempseys and the new Jozy Altidores. Only better.