Thursday, July 03, 2014

Culture Shock 07.03.14: America still ambivalent about soccer

I harbor no illusions. Every four years, the World Cup rolls around. Americans suddenly show a modicum of interest in the world's most popular sport. And people wonder if this, at long last, is the breakthrough year for soccer in the U.S. of A.

Then Team USA gets knocked out of the tournament, and everything goes back to the way it was.

Well, almost. Soccer emerges ever so slightly more popular than it was, getting a tiny boost in its slow, yet inexorable climb. It's not a lot, but it's something. And a few more kids who would have gone out for football or basketball try soccer instead. Critical mass is just around the corner.

Still, if ever there were a World Cup to ignite Americans' passion for the sport, it's this one. The U.S. team survived the "group of death" only to lose a heartbreaker to Belgium despite goalkeeper Tim Howard's heroics. But scoring is up and even the draws have been exciting. Normally there is nothing worse than a game decided by a tie-breaking penalty shootout. But in the first match of the knockout round, Brazil and Chile managed to make even that outcome compelling.

This World Cup also gives us heroes and villains. Everyone loves Argentina's reserved Lionel Messi. Everyone hates Portugal's prima donna Cristiano Ronaldo. Everyone just shakes their heads at Uruguay’s serial biter Luis Suarez. It's almost like professional wrestling, except not scripted, although there's just enough dodgy officiating to make one wonder. (Thanks, FIFA!)

Team USA is led by Clint Dempsey, who goes by the nickname Captain America. Meanwhile, host team Brazil has a Hulk, aka Givanildo Vieira de Souza. Somehow Disney, which owns both ESPN and Marvel Comics, dropped the ball on this marketing tie-in opportunity. But it's just one more bit of flourish for the fans. (Hulk's goal disallowed on a bogus hand ball? Hulk smash!)

It's all much too much for America's steadfast anti-soccer faction, which views soccer as foreign, slightly sinister and undoubtedly a threat to American Exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism has always been something of a myth. Most of the things that supposedly make America unique were invented elsewhere. Capitalism? Representative government? Individualism? Sorry, but the English, Scots and Dutch all got there first. We invented jazz, but only the Europeans and the Japanese ever appreciated it. But soccer apathy? That does set us apart.

For the soccer fan in America, that apathy is a mixed bag. If you want to follow top-notch soccer, Major League Soccer isn't there yet. Following the best of the best means following the English Premier League.

England's national team may be a source of constant disappointment, but the Premier League is anything but, largely because its teams are loaded with foreigners. If you're watching the World Cup, you've seen them. Suarez may play for Uruguay's national team, but he plays his club ball for Liverpool, or he will as soon as he completes his four-month suspension.

I upgraded my cable mainly so I can watch Premier League matches — specifically Manchester City — on NBCSN. This is not an inexpensive habit. You can't count on the local sports bar's telly being tuned to soccer, except during the World Cup. The rest of the time, you have better luck finding soccer on TV at a Mexican restaurant, and then it's likely a Spanish-language broadcast. (Unfortunately, I studied German rather than Spanish in school. Not one of my wiser decisions, all said. Dummkopf!)

There is, however, a sunny side to this. American soccer apathy means you can escape soccer when you want. One might complain of "too much" World Cup hype, but that's one month every four years. Try escaping college football in America, to say nothing of in Alabama. It's impossible. It's all some people talk about. And while I'm not a mental health professional, I am worried about some of you. If your vehicle has more than two bumper stickers proclaiming your preferred college football team, you probably have too much of your self esteem wrapped up in the team's success.

But that's just one layman's assessment. Regardless, I've no delusions about soccer's place in America's sportsball pecking order. But where it sits isn't all bad.

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