We are in the midst of one of the world’s biggest sporting events – the World Cup. This is an event that only happens every four years, and it is a huge deal. Thirty-two teams from various countries are divided into eight groups of four. Each group plays all of the teams in their group, and the top two teams from each group make it into the round of sixteen which is set up as a single elimination bracket for those sixteen teams. The winner takes home the cup to their country.
It’s always a spectacular event worldwide, and this year, it has been especially huge in the US as well, as ratings seem to indicate a flash of “soccer fever.” This was partly due to Team USA’s unexpected success as they managed to win their first match against Ghana, which allowed them to move out of the “Group of Death” and into the round play with a loss and a tie against Portugal and Germany. [A point system and goal differential is often a critical factor in getting out of a group – not just wins and losses.] Regardless of the US’s 1-1-1 record, they generated interest and excitement that was unprecedented** in this country when it comes to soccer.
However, soccer in the US has not generally been viewed with much interest. Here, I offer a few reasons why soccer in the US has lagged so far behind the rest of the world in terms of popularity:
Litigious / Precision / Rules:
In the US we tend to be a very litigious people obsessed with rules (though often looking for loopholes in the rules that will give us an advantage). I often hear complaints about the running clock and stoppage time (how can you be so imprecise!?). There is only one field official and sometimes calls are missed, and there is no instant replay to resolve discrepancies (who did the ball go out on from there!?). There is a bit of leeway given and certain flow to the game that is not meant to be interrupted and challenged by the letter of the law on every play. If the ball is kicked out, throw it in from that general area…there is no need for a referee to place you in a specific spot and tell you it must be from there (unless a player is truly egregious in taking advantage – a judgment call by the referee). As Americans, I think we tend to crave a final ruling that is the “right” ruling, backed up by specific rules. We don’t like judgement calls. And we want to make sure that every play and every call is exactly right every time (thus, more and more emphasis on instant replay in most of our major sports). Sometimes soccer is too free form for this for our taste.
This could have fallen within the first category, but since I believe it is perhaps the biggest factor, I am giving it its own space. I can’t even count the number of times or people who I have heard complain about the excessive “flopping” that goes on in a given match. This relates to above in that it’s not precise and is left up to the judgement of a particular official. A foul in soccer is often not called if a player does not go down. Therefore it becomes a catch-22 that if a player is fouled but doesn’t go down, he may not get the call. It has since turned into players falling at the slightest touch (and sometimes no touch at all) to draw fouls and free kicks.
I will give the benefit of the doubt to the players not flopping on most occasions. When you have been running several miles throughout the course of the game and get clipped on the achilles or the shin by another individual at full speed, you will probably take a tumble. But yes, flopping does happen. Yes, it is annoying if becomes excessive. It is a part of the game, and it becomes a bit easier for players to embellish with only one official on the field. And generally speaking, I think we exaggerate just how much “flopping” actually goes on during a match.
Soccer games don’t lend themselves all that well to advertising revenue, as far as television broadcasts compared to other popular sports here. The nature of a soccer game is constant action for 45 minutes with a short halftime break followed by 45 more minutes of constant action. At any point during that action the winning play could occur – you can’t tune in for the 4th quarter or final few minutes and expect to see the most important plays. There are not team time-outs or tv time-outs or multiple breaks throughout the game where stations cut to advertising breaks. (I think this is a huge positive as a fan, though I’m not sure that those concerned about revenue see it the same.) Sure, the Europeans and South Americans have obviously gotten huge corporations to invest largely in teams and have figured out a way to make it work. We will see if think it can work here.
History / Tradition / Infrastructure
We just don’t have a long standing history with soccer…we’re still getting to know one another. We don’t have a rich tradition of great (men’s) teams that we all remember fondly or players who were huge stars that we collectively idolize (or perhaps villainize). We don’t have a long standing professional league with deep roots in cities where we go spend an afternoon or an evening watching a sport that we all know and love. Nor do we tune in to the television for regular season or tournament games. There’s no emphasis to direct our finest athletes in that direction to achieve greatness. As soccer begins to grow in popularity among youth, we will begin to develop an infrastructure with more leagues and opportunities to develop players…and perhaps some of the best athletes will be enticed to stay and develop within the game of soccer instead of leaving for more valued sports. Who knows…this year’s World Cup may be a turning point; one that we look back at as a cornerstone that becomes an integral part of our collective sports history and tradition.
We Love to Win
Building on the above, we really haven’t had much success as a country when it comes to soccer. And, as a nation, we really like to win. We pride ourselves on being the best at everything (even when we are not). Soccer is perhaps one sport where we couldn’t fool ourselves into believing that we were good, probably because the gap between us and superpower teams was so obvious. There really hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer for or get interested in up until this point. Even just a little bit of success in this World Cup spiked interest pretty drastically. I imagine that if we continue to show signs of success and the capability to win (or advance with a 1-1-1 record), the love will follow.
For this World Cup, however, I’ll leave the winning up to Argentina! That is the team I am always pulling for – and it happens to be a nice bonus that we have the best player on the planet in Messi. Germany versus Argentina for the World Cup Champion should be a great match. I think that the Germans are probably a bit better overall, but with Messi on the field anything is possible. !Para adelante…Vamos ya!
**It is certainly the case that in recent years, interest in soccer has been steadily growing in the US – youth leagues here, a growing MLS, and viewership of European soccer leagues. I am not trying to suggest that there was zero interest before this World Cup, but I do think this World Cup did help to generate an unprecedented interest and excitement about the sport.