Martians, Steven Wells, and the Soul of American Soccer

I don’t want to turn this blog into a running commentary on the Guardian’s coverage of American soccer. But their latest piece on the subject made me think: how do we convey to the world the diversity of soccer in this country? ‘Cos for whatever reason, it’s apparently not at all obvious to journalists from overseas writing about it. Even martians would surely gather more about American soccer culture on their flyover tours of the American soccer landscape than a troop of British journalists manage every four years.

Today, Ed Pilkington, the Guardian’s New York correspondent, reports:

If lack of bunting in the street is any indication, America appears to be living up to its reputation for glorious isolation. While the rest of the globe is already gripped by World Cup fever, here in the US there are scant outward signs of football – or rather soccer – obsession.

There are no Stars and Stripes in the windows beyond the usual patriotic quota, no cars honking horns as goals are scored. Very few papers across the country lived up to the chutzpah of the New York Post, which plastered its post-England game front page with the headline: “USA wins 1-1″.

In the American heartlands excitement levels were decidedly muted by comparison, despite that impressive scoreline. The Houston Chronicle was far more interested in college American football than in the England battle, even though Saturday’s goalscorer Clint Dempsey is a local boy from Nacogdoches in Texas.

But it would be wrong to imply that this country is indifferent to the World Cup. Last Saturday, sports bars across the US were packed with fans, from the 2,000 who watched the game in Studio Square in New York to thousands more who squatted in the home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team to watch the match on its big screen.

About 17 million Americans watched the England game on television – a relatively piddly number compared with the 106m who sat transfixed in February as the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. But that’s still double the viewing figures during the opening round of the 2006 World Cup, and it even outstrips the popularity of the recent Stanley Cup, the culmination of the 2009-10 season in ice hockey – a game that is considered an American staple.

Yeah, OK, that’s not too bad of a summary on the interest level on Saturday’s game, at least from what I saw. Unlike fellow British columnist Paul Harris, Pilkington doesn’t just visit one New York bar and draw wild conclusions, he at least goes on to speak to a couple of people who know a fair bit about soccer in this country, prolific and experienced soccer bloggers Jason Davis of Match Fit USA and Chris Harris of Florida-based EPL Talk. But the article never strays from trying to tell the whole story of American soccer solely through the lens of that one US Men’s National Team game on one World Cup day: “Evidence of the sport’s halfway house between success and failure can be seen in the coverage the match against England received from the US media. Commentators felt they could only convey the significance of the game by invoking baseball lore; the beautiful game could not be allowed to speak for itself.”

To get back to something true that Pilkington wrote: It would be wrong to imply that this country is indifferent to the World Cup. Yes, indeed. But not to get all Paul Gardner on this, what Pilkington misses in explaining why this is true is in his typically Anglocentric way of believing that the story of soccer in this country can be boiled down to the interest level in the US Men’s National Team during the World Cup.

OK: I live in a house near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Next door to me, on one side, are a family we call “the Italians”. Quite recently, loud noises emanated from their house in the middle of the afternoon, including inexplicably loud cheering and worryingly noisy groans: yes, they were having a party because the country they support in the World Cup, Italy, were playing. On the other side is a Mexican family. I didn’t hear much cheering today even when Blanco notched a goal in a World Cup finals tournament for the third time, but I wouldn’t be guessing wildly if I had said their primary interest in the World Cup would be in the Mexican national team. In my house, there’s less interest in the World Cup than there might have been because Poland, the country of my wife’s birth, were last seen losing 5-0 to Spain in a humiliating warm-up game that seems to have jinxed the Spanish. Outside our house a Polish flag flies; in a nation of millions of immigrants, in the city of Chicago with a million proud Poles and a million proud Mexicans and a hundred other nationalities in substantial numbers, judging interest in the World Cup as a whole by the number of stars and stripes flying is foolish in the extreme.

AnglocentrismNow, support for the US Men’s National Team is growing in the US. Many of us immigrants like myself will cheer for the US aside from when our country (in my case, England!) is playing them. As Pilkington points out in his piece, there was plenty of patriotic fervor on display at US soccer bars for the USMNT team on Saturday. The US men’s team is growing a substantial, informed, passionate supporters’ base like it’s never had before amongst soccer fans in general, immigrants or not. Brilliant, and an important development for the sport here, for sure.

Yet there’s still a reason why the second highest paid player in Major League Soccer history is not an American, and it’s not a bad thing. It was today’s Mexican hero Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who played for the Chicago Fire from 2007 to 2009. A man worshiped by millions in the United States. But to judge from the Guardian’s article, it’s as if this entire, obsesssive Hispanic soccer culture does not exist in the United States. And hell, the league he played in may as well not exist too: how can, again, an article about the state of soccer in a country not even mention its professional men’s league?

There’s a reason why the biggest television audience for Blanco’s goal today was probably not on ESPN, but on Spanish-language Univision. Univision, not incidentally, paid $325 million for the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the 2007 and 2011 Women’s World Cups, and the 2009 and 2013 Confederations Cups (ESPN/ABC, incidentally, only paid $100m for the English-language rights to the same package). Univision is not messing around here:

The nation’s largest Spanish-language media company plans nearly 900 hours of World Cup programming from South Africa with all 64 matches broadcast live and in high definition as well as live streaming of events on UnivisionFutbol.com , video on demand, a futbol phone app and mobile alerts on everything from points scored to game finals.

A lot is riding on the World Cup for Univision, which has the exclusive Spanish-language broadcast rights in the United States mainland and Puerto Rico for the event.

Not only are Hispanic viewers crazy for soccer, but the World Cup — or the Mundial as it’s known in Spanish — is also regarded as the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the strength and growth of the U.S. Hispanic market.

“This World Cup is extraordinarily important to us,” said Cesar Conde, Miami-based president of Univision Networks.

It’s interesting that these massive $$$ numbers never seem to be printed in British newspaper articles about soccer in the US: the fact the World Cup is a richly valuable media property in both Spanish and English in the United States, but even more in the former language, doesn’t fit the narrative very well. The fact that the current $425 World Cup rights deal represents a four-fold increase in the value of the package from its predecessor suggests capitalist America has figured out the sport has a massively growing popularity and value, across American culture.

Then there’s the small matter that the US Men’s National Team is not the most popular American national team: at least, if we judge by the biggest television audience ever for a soccer match in the United States: that honour remains with the United States Women’s National Team, for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in 1999, with 18 million tuning in. It’s safe to say that men’s soccer has grown in the US to the point that if a men’s team reached the final, that number would be beaten, but that’s besides the point. Speaking of women’s soccer, it’s so absurd to think the article might even mention the fact the United States currently has a professional women’s league (featuring the majority of the world’s best players) and England is vaguely hoping it might get one next year, that I almost didn’t notice its absence.

The success and the attention paid to the US Men’s National Team is important. But it also isn’t important, because soccer here thrives at youth level, at men’s club level, in women’s professional soccer, in colleges, in parks, in playgrounds, and elsewhere so much aside from that. A men’s national team game not being the Super Bowl does not mean that soccer is still trapped between success and failure as a whole. The Super Bowl is, and Soccer is. The latter is there for you, almost whereever you are, in some form. And maybe it’s better that as much as it grows, it never is the Super Bowl.

The Guardian used to convey both the elite and grassroots diversity of the sport of soccer in the United States to its readers easily, because it employed a man who understood better than most of us how soccer toils and bubbles and thrives and spits just below the surface of the American mainstream of sports, without it really mattering what the mainstream is: the late Steven Wells. So I’ll just leave you with this column from Wells on the Guardian’s site in 2008, and a nugget from it: “A Martian visiting the US for the first time would think soccer has been around forever and is hardwired into the American soul.”  Not a martian posing as an English journalist in New York, sadly.

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