Every Four Years: Idiots On Soccer

As Media Matters puts it, the old cliches about soccer in America are out in force on cue: “As the 2010 World Cup begins in South Africa, conservative media figures have seized the opportunity to attack the tournament and the sport of soccer. They have also used soccer as a proxy to attack President Obama and progressives.”

Glenn Beck: “Barack Obama’s policies are the World Cup.” In an extensive rant on the June 11 Glenn Beck Program, Beck purported to explain how President Obama’s policies “are the World Cup” of “political thought.” Beck stated, “It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.” Beck stated that likewise, “the rest of the world likes Barack Obama’s policies, we do not.”

As Media Matters previously put it, seeing soccer as a conspiracy against America is pretty odd when Fox runs the main soccer channel in the United States. Fox! But, oh well.

Then there’s Paul Harris in London’s Observer today (the Guardian’s sister paper published on Sundays), doing the typical once-in-four-years go to New York and wander in a bar (in this case, Pete’s Place in NYC) and report casual conversation as serious analysis thing on the state of the game in America:

The failure of Americans to fall in love with soccer is as old a story as the World Cup itself and the social reasons are the same as ever. Americans love their own sports. The “big four” of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey are faster, more intricate and higher scoring than football, with a tendency to create single moments of high drama and a strong aversion to anything that resembles a nil-nil draw. According to Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s fake conservative pundit: “Soccer is just one more thing the rest of the world is trying to jam down our throats, like the metric system.”

Colbert’s persona is a joke but his point is true. Yet every four years the American media promises a great breakthrough in the nation’s attitude to the “beautiful game”. This year was no different. Time magazine put the sport on its cover and an inside article was titled: “Yes, soccer is America’s game.”

But not many really agree. The bubble of football popularity soon deflates. Almost 17 million Americans watched the last World Cup final, but 106 million tuned into the last Super Bowl – and 48 million to the final of the men’s college basketball championship.

So, while the passion was there at Pete’s – and the rest of America – it appeared a transitory thing. “I don’t expect any fisticuffs between American and English soccer fans after this,” laughed Hauge. “The World cup is great but soccer is not that important.”

It’d be funny to go to England and write an article about soccer there without mentioning the professional soccer league there, but Harris manages to do this, with not a word about Major League Soccer’s growth. And not a word about the changing landscape of soccer in the States that anyone who has lived here for some time and paid attention to it can patently see, from massive participation at youth levels to diverse vibrant fanbases that see growing audiences for the sport on television and in person. Yeah, it’s not the national game. So what?  17 million people watching the World Cup final is still a shitload of people, and that number will rise again this year, probably beating out a number of other major sporting events (the NBA finals are currently averaging 15 million viewers per game, for example).

Harris continues, “The build-up to the World Cup in America has been a distinctly quieter affair than most of the rest of the world. The back pages and sports sections of the newspapers are still dominated by baseball and basketball.” Yes, this is true compared to the coverage in England. But the World Cup is not exactly invisible here, and the presence of the game on the prime national sports network ESPN is saturation to a level not often seen. Yesterday, I went through several hundred newspaper front pages (not back pages), and found the World Cup front and center on dozens of them around the country — not just in the major metropolitan areas where outside of Harris says soccer is “seen as an exotic, foreign beast.”  Sure, to some extent that’s still true, but it’s probably less true than Harris thinks (not that he bothered to go anywhere besides New York to draw his conclusions, judging from the article).

Harris is painting a static picture of the game when that’s just not the true story. Wandering into a bar in one city and garnering a few random opinions is not good enough as a basis for judging an entire nation of 300 million people’s appetite for anything.

As for this: “While virtually every pub in England is draped in the flag of St George, the bars in America feature all the flags of the World Cup nations.” Well, actually, that’s kinda cool. Instead of every person being expected to wrap themselves in the U.S. flag, we have a diverse country with millions of soccer fans who support different teams (sorry, Glenn Beck). Sure, there’s a growing passion and audience for the US team, and many bars (most of them official partners of US Soccer) are US team-focused now. But it will probably always be the case that there won’t ever be simple absolute kneejerk support for one nation in the United States by all soccer fans, even as the game as a whole continues to grow. It’s pretty awesome to see how Korean fans packed out a Chicago bar yesterday morning at 6.30am.  And then for the same bar to be packed with US national team fans starting US chants just hours later.  There’s a beauty in that and if you can’t see it, you’ve been staring at way too many St. George’s flags for your own good, my friend.

SmallBar Fullerton, June 12th, Chicago (photo from the SmallBar Fullerton Twitter feed), South Korea vs. Greece:


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