Previously I wrote something to the effect that soccer will never really gain acceptance in America. I should have prefaced that thought by saying that I think soccer will never really gain acceptance in America under it's current condition.
It's not so much that the US Men's National Team (MNT) isn't good, well that is part of it, but it's more than that. And to be quite honest I don't think that the average Joe in America realizes all that is going on with his dismay, nay his dislike, nay his very hatred of all things futbol. So let's take a look at the pathology of this ailment which afflicts my fellow Americans, and maybe perhaps some potential remedies, if any, that may exist.
I first noticed this hatred of soccer by my fellow Americans as a child. I grew up in a small town in the American midwest. Baseball, football and basketball were king, all other sports were for the kids who couldn't play these titans of recreation. But the disdain for soccer, well that was reserved a special place hovering somwhere below Ptolomæa, yet not quite in Judecca (hint: Culpepper minus the 'u'). In fact, I think the most common phrase I heard concerning the nature of soccer during the 1980's was "that's a damned COMMUNIST sport boy".
And yet, even in 1994 when the USA was fortunate enough to have hosted a World Cup, Americans really could have cared less. Being an eternal optimist though, I blame that more on some boring-ass ride in a white bronco that just happened to occur one day after the games began. Coincidence? I think not.
My point is that not that Americans don't like soccer. It's that there is some cosmic force which is using a series of coincidences that use people like Gorbechev and Simpson to spoil what will ultimately triumph in America: futbol. Ok, I'm obviously joking. Soccer will never triumph. And the real reason it will never triumph is that the US will never really be better than the rest of the world at it. And Americans, consciously or not, know that all too well……and they can't stand it.
Just this week ESPN did a poll asking Americans how far they thought the MNT would go in the World Cup Finals in Germany (set to start in just under 9 hours). The response? A paltry 26% said "not past the group round". Another 25% said to the "round of 16". Only 11% thought we would win. God love the grandma's and the delusional of the world. I just didn't know they made up 11% of the population.
But seriously, the 26% are probably the ones who are right, although they don't know why they're right. You see, most of those 26% are the same guys (or their kids) who told kids like me that soccer was communist. They are the same ones who let their kids play the sport until they're 10, but then it's time to sit down for the "come to Jesus" talk on why they need to pick a real sport. But as ignorant as those people are, they're still probably right. The Americans, despite growing by leaps and bounds in terms of our national store of soccer talent, just still can't cut it as a squad against the best in the world.
And even more disturbing about the poll mentioned is the disdain in the voices of the announcers talking about it. If I were blind I would have been able to hear the droplets of seething and anger beading up on their foreheads. They can't stand being forced to talk about soccer, not because it cuts into Baseball Tonight: with Peter "I'm Still Relevant" Gammons, but because they really and truly believe that anyone who plays soccer must naturally be (by the laws of American superiority) a loser who couldn't play baseball, basketball or football.
So why won't Americans ever be better than everyone else in the world in regards to soccer? Well, let's look at some other sports to see if we can spot a pattern which naturally introduces greatness in sports into a given population. First example: baseball. Granted, baseball is the "American past-time", so naturally we should be good at it. Ok, I'll give you that. But think back to the generations of kids who grew up playing baseball in make-shift sandlots, parking lots, backyards, cul-de-sacs and any other place you could make room to throw down 3 cans as bases and an old towel for home plate. They lived the game. They breathed the game. The talent pool from which to choose was so vaste that some of the greatest ballplayers the world will ever see, well….were in fact seen. Had baseball been treated like soccer in America, the Dodgers would be named the Clintons and to be called a "Yankee fan" would be fightin words in more than just just the Deep South.
Need another example? Ok, let's switch tracks and look at the Olympics, the cornucopia of irrelevant sports, in particular women's gymnastics. One word: Romania. The women of Romania sign contracts for the daughters in their womb, literally turning over their firstborn to the House of Bela. They're good cause the kids never have a chance to think they aren't. Again, for whatever reason(s), they live and breathe the sport from a very early age.
Yet another example, basketball. American basketball players are so amazingly dominant because in the inner cities of America you can have no food, no clothes and no hope….but you always have basketball. It's a way of life.
Perhaps a personal story might help you understand if you're still lost at this point. I've travelled to Peru a few times for mission work with my church. Now I've played soccer since I was about 4. I played on travelling, select and club teams since I was 12. I was one of the top 5 in both scoring and assists class 4A in high school. I could have had a moderate career at a Division II college playing the game, but for reasons that aren't germane to the discussion I chose not to. The point isn't that I'm good, it's that I'm far above average for Americans. And yet when I go to Peru there are consistently a new batch of 8 year olds who make me look silly. I grew up playing on turf, with shoes and shinguards and coaches and balls that are truly round and roll true. They grew up playing in the sand and dirt, with bare feet and rabid stray dogs and dozens of other dirty barefoot kids trying to kick at the "ball" made of 200 plastic bags tied together. There is no comparison, none.
And yet somehow, some way the Americans this year are ranked 4th in the world. Ranked 4th among hundreds of nations who want to be in Germany this month. Ranked 4th among 32 nations who have made it through the year and a half long qualifying gauntlet. Ranked 4th among dozens of men who more often than not grew up dirty footed, distancing themselves from the countless masses in their home towns, states, nations…..all of whom breathed the sport themselves. Somehow the Americans have broken through. And IF the Americans can get to the final four teams, the finals, or even…..well, I won't even dare say it. IF we can do that, perhaps the titans of recreation will add another member to its fold. A sport worthy of living and breathing for our own youth. And if that happens, the world had better get ready…..because when Americans do finally take hold of something, they rarely let go and their dominance is unparalleled.