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
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
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.