The Loneliness of the American Soccer Fan
The world's most popular sport is on the rise in the United States—and my neighbors still couldn't care less about the World Cup.
Being a soccer fan at World Cup time in America is a little like being Jewish in December in a small town in the Midwest. You sense that something big is going on around you, but you're not really a part of it. And the thing you're celebrating and enjoying is either ignored or misunderstood by your friends, peers, and neighbors. It can be a lonely time. But the World Cup is much bigger than Christmas. After all, only a couple of billion people in the world celebrate Christmas; the World Cup is likely to garner the attention of a much larger audience. Yet in the world's largest and most important sports competition, the American team, and the American audience, is a marginal, bit player. And for those of us who love the game of soccer and the World Cup, and for the few of us who followed the ups and downs of Landon Donovan's career, these next couple weeks are likely to be bittersweet.
Of course, it's getting less lonely. The United States has a growing soccer culture, thanks in part to the rise and growth of MLS. The atmosphere at games in Seattle and Toronto is quasi-European, with crowded stadiums and singing fans holding up scarves. A huge, partisan crowd showed up for the U.S. national team's final send-off game against Turkey in Philadelphia. But as a rule, the world game remains a niche product here. Television ratings for MLS and U.S. national team games are minuscule. When Team USA plays World Cup qualifiers at home, it's common for American fans to be outnumbered and outshouted by Costa Ricans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, whoever. Truth be told, there hasn't been all that much to cheer for. In the 2002 World Cup, the United States made it out of its four-team round-robin group and whacked archrival Mexico in an exhilarating 2-0 game before going out to Germany in the quarterfinals. But the 2006 World Cup campaign essentially ended before it began, with the United States falling behind the Czech Republic in the fifth minute in the first game.
Because of the nation's historical incompetence at international soccer, Americans generally look at the World Cup the same way they look at other foreign phenomena like sovereign wealth funds, Bollywood, and China—as a potential marketing bonanza. The Wall Street Journal and other organs of the financial press have been filled with articles about the opportunities for consumer products, brands, and media. The international soccer community, likewise, sees America less as a budding soccer power than as a potential financial bonanza—why else would FIFA consider giving the United States the World Cup for a second time?
As a result, if you're interested in the game, and particularly interested in the U.S. team, you really don't have that many people to talk to. At a recent soccer practice, one of the other dads noted that his son wanted a jersey for some guy whose name he couldn't remember but who might play for a Spanish team. "Lionel Messi?" I asked. From the lack of recognition on his face, I realized I may as well have said "Lionel Trilling?" I wanted to shout: "You know, the best player in the world? The mite from Argentina who moves faster with the ball than without it, whose low center of gravity lets him ride off tackles from much larger defenders, who schools the opposition the way Michael Jordan used to, who in April scored four goals against Arsenal—against ARSENAL, for god's sakes!—in a Champions League game, who plays for Barcelona, possibly the most awesome and elegant club in the world, a team that gives its shirt sponsorship to UNICEF rather than selling it to some awful corporation? You mean that guy?" But what was the point? Talking with my neighbors about Lionel Messi would be like trying to engage a group of Amish farmers in a discussion about the merits of the 2011 Porsche Carrera.
Oh, sure, you can find other enthusiasts. A few Slatecolleagues pass around YouTube links to the latest sick goal. Urban hipsters are obliged to show some interest in the game, the same way they do in CSAs, and facial hair (for men) and yoga (for women). On the Internet, there's the high-brow crew over at the New Republic, (which features an ad for a book from Cornell University press on Spartak Moscow), the fine blogs No Short Corners and Yanks Abroad, and a rising volume of press coverage. But there's nothing like the volume and sophistication of stuff our frères at Slate.fr are doing. If you want to follow the game, wince with every missed shot, and question coach Bob Bradley's personnel choices, you'll have to venture into the fever swamps of BigSoccer.com. There you will find some people who live and die with status updates of defender Oguchi Onyewu's knee. But they're only avatars.
Following the U.S. national team in the World Cup is a somewhat solitary endeavor in part because the scheduling doesn't lend itself to social or family watching. Unlike the Olympics, the World Cup is not scheduled or televised according to U.S. preferences—the last time the quadrennial tournament was staged in the Western hemisphere was 1994. To watch the United States' opening game in the 2002 World Cup, I had to go to the Irish pub across from my New York apartment at 4 a.m. This year the schedule is only slightly better: this Saturday against England at 2:30 p.m. ET, Friday, June 18, against Slovenia at 10 a.m. ET, then Wednesday, June 23, at 10 a.m. ET, against Algeria. Yes, pubs and sports bars will be showing the games. But how many people will leave work, or take the day off, or skip the Little League game or pool party, to sit indoors and watch a soccer match? My guess is that when the U.S. plays England, the bars in New York and Los Angeles will be like Condé Nast in the 1990s—overrun with Brits.
I won't be there. On Saturday afternoon, I'll be at a family gathering, one at which I'm confident nobody will be checking scores or talking about the potentially epic matchup with England. I'll have to tape it and watch it later, most likely alone. At least I'm confident none of my close friends or family members will call, e-mail, or text me with scores or updates, and that I can safely listen to the radio without the result intruding. On the other hand, I might have to shut off my Twitter feed. I follow a few foreigners.
Slate V: How To Get Americans To Watch Soccer