I’m not too worried about whether the United States wins or loses in the World Cup. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that we (about the only time anybody in sports can use the word “we” is when referring to their own national team) beat Portugal. Nobody thought the US had a chance against the 5th ranked team in the world and easily the best team in the group. I was thrilled, and would like to see us get through to the next round. But the World Cup for the US isn’t about winning, it’s about being on a world stage where sport is the focus. And it’s a sport we’re still novices at.
We compete globally in a few things, mostly individual sports. Lance Armstrong rules the world of cycling. Tiger Woods is the best golfer on the planet. People pay to see Michael Johnson run. They play baseball and basketball around the world but we invented baseball and basketball, exported them, and beat everybody. Even as a kid I thought it was funny that we called it the “World Series” but didn’t play anybody from Japan or Latin America. But soccer is the world’s sport, played everywhere because in essence, all you need is a ball. And if you don’t have a ball, something you can kick will do.
I was on a beach in Central America once where about 40 kids were playing soccer, 20 to a side. The goals were two reeds stuck in the sand, the ball an unidentifiable sphere. Could have been a soccer ball. Could have been a basketball or volleyball. Who knows? But the playing of the game was the thing. Shorts no shoes, no shirts and a ball. Everybody was enthralled.
Soccer has never grabbed the sporting attention of America. Despite the predictions that the last 1 1/2 generations would spawn the next Pele in America, it hasn’t happened. Those 6 and 7 year olds on the soccer fields 20 years ago didn’t become big soccer fans. Perhaps the game doesn’t have enough scoring, isn’t physical enough, or one of twenty reasons it isn’t popular in America. But that doesn’t matter. It is popular everywhere else. It’s known as “the beautiful game.”
Watching it at the highest level, the skills of the players are fantastic. And to watch players wearing our country’s colors compete is great. Just getting to the World Cup is a feat for the US. Consider this: if Michael Jordan grows up in America, he has several sports to choose from. He picks basketball, and becomes the best player ever. If Michael Jordan grows up just about anywhere else, he’s a soccer player. Any great athlete in any other country first has to decide between soccer and every other sport. And most choose soccer.
Imagine if the best athletes in this country chose soccer over other sports. Cal Ripken, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in midfield, Deion and Barry Sanders as strikers. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Herschel Walker controlling our turf. With somebody quick, fast and great hands like Kevin Garnett in goal. How good would we be then? But there are other options here in America, other options that have two things going for them: more money and most girls don’t think soccer is cool. I know you’re laughing about that right now. But when was the last time you heard about a glamorous couple in the US made up of a supermodel and a soccer player? Everywhere else, that’s the norm.
David Beckham, England’s premier player, is married to Posh Spice. They’re the glam couple of the UK. Here, the soccer players are considered the nerds, the guys who couldn’t make the football team. Not true, but that’s the perception. And the money. We were all aghast over A-Rod’s $25 million a year with the Rangers. That’s about the going rate for soccer players around the world.
Argentina used two substitutes in today’s match with England whose combined salaries are $88 million! Here in the US, there’s also a chasm between the soccer fans and the non-fans. Both share the blame. The fans, especially the ones who have been with the game a long time, look down their noses at the non-fans like they’re the unwashed masses. Heathens. Mongrels. They don’t try to bring anybody new to the game. If fact, their noses are so far up in the air, they don’t see anybody else. And the non-fans are just as bad. They constantly deride the game as a non-sport. A sport for sissies.
Hey, just relax both of you. If they can race NASCAR at Indy, a little soccer here isn’t going to hurt anybody.