Are Americans (finally) embracing the beautiful game?

2010-06-25 09:14

As they savour a euphoric victory that propels them into the next

round of the biggest sporting event on the planet, Americans are asking: has the

US finally embraced soccer or will it forever be the game of the future?

Some are seeing the ongoing World Cup as a make-or-break moment for

soccer in the United States and their squad’s performance in South Africa a

barometer for this country’s competence in and appetite for the beautiful

game.

But many experts and observers argue that soccer had been steadily

gaining a fan base in America long before US hero Landon Donovan scored a

stoppage time goal in a 1-0 victory over Algeria.

And the US, 14th in FIFA’s rankings, has put the world on notice

that it can play with the powerhouses.

Martin Vasquez, a Mexican-American footballer who played in the

inaugural Major League Soccer season in 1996 and who is now the head coach for

MLS team Chivas USA, said the US win over Algeria was crucial: “It was a big day

for football in the US.

 The coverage that the US national team has got here has

been incredible.”

An average of 11.1 million Americans watched English and Spanish

broadcasts of the first-round matches – 68% more than in 2006 – including 17.1

million who tuned in for US-England, according to Nielsen.

By comparison, the NBA basketball finals earlier this month

averaged 18.1 million, the TV ratings agency said.

Experts say coverage of the tournament by US sports broadcast giant

ESPN has gone from amateurish in 2006 to top-rate this year.

“They are treating this like the Olympics,” said soccer blogger Max

Bergmann.

Americans are used to seeing their teams and athletes win big, so a

stale performance such as the one that saw USA crash out in the opening round in

2006 could have soured Americans on the sport.

But Bergmann, who blogs for Association Football, thinks the game

is flourishing as a result of a “demographic reality” decades in the

making.

More US kids play soccer than any other sport – including the big

three: American football, baseball and basketball – thanks to youth leagues that

took off in the 1980s, he pointed out in a phone call yesterday from South

Africa, where he is blogging about the World Cup.

Bergmann said: “The older generation that grew up without any

interaction with soccer, they are moving offstage and younger kids are now into

it.”

But creating a devout soccer nation “isn’t something you can snap

your fingers about,” he added. “It’s a long process.”

It began in earnest in the 1970s, when US soccer officials began

luring global superstars like Pele and Johan Cruyff to the ultimately doomed

North American Soccer League.

Prior to Donovan’s thriller, the “shot hear round the world” was

Paul Caligiuri’s miracle strike in November 1989, which gave the US a victory

over Trinidad & Tobago to make its first World Cup in 40 years.

Five years later, the United States were the hosts.

Faraway as it seems, that 1994 tournament proved vital for

America’s soccer standing.

It sold more than 3.5 million tickets, a record which

still stands, and precipitated a professional rebirth with the launch of MLS in

1996.

The 10-team league has grown to 16 today, and despite the worst

recession in decades, MLS will expand to 20 teams by 2012.

It claims stars like Donovan and his LA Galaxy team mate David

Beckham, and France’s Thierry Henri is rumoured to be making a move to MLS next

season.

University of Maryland coach Sacho Cirovski has seen a steady rise

in talent among American youth over the past decade, largely as a result of a

comprehensive, patient approach by the US Soccer Federation.

He said: “It’s just gratifying that all the hard work at the grass

level, from youth soccer to college to pros, it’s all paid off.”

Cirovski was “careful not to make this US-Algeria match a seminal

moment or tipping point it’s just another positive sign,” he said.

Tell that to former US president Bill Clinton, who as honorary

chairman of the bid committee to bring the tournament back to US soil sat next

to Fifa chief Sepp Blatter during the US-Algeria match.

“I think they believe we’re serious about it now,” Sports

Illustrated quoted Clinton as saying, referring to world powers like Brazil and

Germany.

He was reportedly so inspired that he juggled his work schedule to

be in Rustenburg on Saturday to watch USA play.

Not all Americans are warming to the world’s game, though.

Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck whined on a radio program

before the Cup kicked off: “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.

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.”

Yet many signs suggest he and a merry band of soccer sourpusses are

increasingly in the minority.

Fan Ted Rosenbaum (24) said: “It was as if every World Cup since

1994 was supposed to be the turnaround. Let’s just hope they’re right this

time.”



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