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 The American Resistance

My "home'" teams qualified this past weekend for the ultimate sporting prize, the 2002 World Cup Finals. The United States, through a 2-1 victory over Jamaica, and England, through a 2-2 draw with Greece, are two of twenty-one teams that have qualified for South Korea/Japan in 2002. Both games were dramatic: a Joe Max-Moore penalty kick in the eighty-first minute for the United States and a David Beckham (yes, the man married to Posh Spice) free kick for England in the final 90 seconds to draw level. The United States and England appear to be on opposite ends of the football spectrum, though both are ranked in the FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) top twenty with England ninth and the U.S. eighteenth, respectively. With qualification Sunday, the United States became only the 6th team ever to qualify for four straight World Cup Finals (not to mention a first-ever appearance in the medal round of the 2000 Olympics). Unfortunately, where football is religion here in England, the United States has been slow to embrace the game of football, or so it seems.

Where does this resistance come from? In the most recent FIFA survey, the United States is far and away the most populous football playing country on earth, with over eighteen million players (second is Indonesia with ten million). This survey did not include children's leagues or "occasional" players, which would surely inflate the population to over twenty million. Add in the newest voting demographic of "soccer moms,"and I have to wonder why the game has met resistance among the media and general population who still contend that football is a "fringe sport."

Is football a "fringe sport"? Unlike the World Series, the FIFA World Cup Tournament is truly a world-encompassing event featuring 204 nations competing in regional tournaments over four years to qualify for one of thirty-two spots in the Finals. The World Cup Finals are an advertisers' bonanza with thirty-seven billion people tuning in to the Finals in France '98, including 1.3 billion alone for the Final between France and Brazil, and 2.7 million people attended the sixty-four games across France '98. 240 million people worldwide (or one in twenty-five) play football. There are 1.5 million teams and 300,000 registered clubs. The United States hosted three of the most prestigious football tournaments within the last eight years in the 1994 Men's World Cup Finals, the 1996 Olympic Tournament, and the 1999 Women's World Cup Finals. After numerous failures, there are now two top-level professional leagues and 40-player development squads for both Men's and Women's National Teams. The greatest league in the world, the England Premiership, boasts three players from our Men's National Team in prominent roles (Brad Friedel, starting GK for Blackburn; Kasey Keller, 2nd GK for Tottenham; and Joe Max-Moore, F for Everton) and National Team Captain Claudio Reyna starts for one of the biggest clubs in the world, Glasgow Rangers of the Scottish Premier League. Almost half the Men's National Team play in top leagues in Europe.

Fantastic news on the whole, but the resistance question still bugs me. Some thoughts:

There is a quantifiable media bias in the country. For example, nationally syndicated talk show host Jim Rome regularly blasts soccer as a "stupid" sport, and frequently his soccer "takes" highlight the negative aspects of soccer: hooliganism, riots, and stadium disasters. Romey could recently be heard celebrating the fact that the Men's National Team's qualification for the World Cup Finals was in danger, and they may not qualify. To denigrate the sport the way he does with no attempt to understand football does the sport a disservice, and his highlighting only the negative aspects of the sport is tantamount to saying every fan in the NFL is a Raider fan.

Advertisers cannot sell the games…errr…sell commercials during the games with much frequency. At the outside, football matches usually take two hours: forty-five minute halves and with 10-15 minute intervals at half time. No commercials to interrupt play, no four hour national championship games with two minute breaks during every play stoppage, no Coca-Cola/Tostitoes/PS2/Poulan Weedeater World Cup (though I'm sure it has been considered). No selling of advertising, no major network coverage.

After the United States began its retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan yesterday, ABC decided to pre-empt coverage of the USA v Jamaica qualifier, so they could broadcast news of the strikes. Now, I wasn't in the States for this (I watched the game on Sky Sports Digital here in England), but was any of the NFL or MLB pre-empted yesterday? My various sources tell me no.

Players (read eighteen million or so people) would much rather be out playing football than watching football. Sure, when the national Tteams are performing, they get a decent draw on TV and in the stands, but the newness of both the MLS and the WUSA and past failures of the NASL (among other leagues) lead to a bit of scepticism among the football-playing public when it comes to supporting these leagues. Local players that participate in regular leagues would be considered "outdoorsy," preferring to be doing things not related to sitting in front of the television, be it football, biking, etc. Many have children participating in football leagues. Most of the potential viewing audience are smarter than the commentators and are sick of listening to their mindless drivel (although I don't think this is solely a football problem).

The average sports fan has no room on his/her plate for football/soccer. Look at the average sports year: January, NFL playoffs and Super Bowl, College Football Bowl Games, Basketball (NBA/NCAA); February, Basketball, Spring Training, NHL; March, MLB, NHL, March Madness (now goes into April); April, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, Spring college football practice (this is a sport in the South), NHL playoffs, MLB, NBA; May…well…you get the picture. If you have a favourite team in each sport, there is no time to try to learn a new sport that you have never watched or played. And, heaven forbid trying to explain the rules to someone who can't get their head 'round the infield fly rule, much less the Arsenal offside trap.

The pertinent question is whether or not all this can be overcome? And I'm pretty sure that it can, and the powers-that-be can find comfort in the fact that twenty million people actively participate in the sport of football. Quite simply the fact that many people in their thirties and forties participated in the first leagues in their home towns and in the first high school leagues (yours truly included) are still playing, and their kids are playing. That is a lot of uniforms, balls, and shoes for the Adidas and Nikes of the world. The Men's National Team's qualification will go a long way to helping the cause (now, if the World Cup Finals can get more live coverage from the networks is the huge question mark-remember NBC's highlights package from Sydney?). To quote Joe Max-Moore; "We [the United States] have so many kids playing soccer. For them not having this team in the World Cup would have been devastating." And this football fan is hoping (praying maybe?) for a much better performance than the one from France '98, a performance along the lines of the beating we gave England in the 1950 World Cup (still listed as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history). I would settle for getting out of group play and into the playoffs.

Finally, you may have noticed that I said "football" throughout the article; why call it "soccer"? Football was played long before American football. The running joke here in England is why do we (as Americans) call it "football" when nobody actually kicks the ball with any frequency? Quite hard to quibble with that.

October 2001

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