In the United States soccer has long been the kindergartener whose mom dressed him up in a suit for field day. As if our country’s disdain for the sport weren’t enough, we decided to call it names. Known as “football” or “the beautiful game” throughout the rest of the world, we labeled it, “soccer.”
The same game is viewed with incredible fervor globally—as if the stakes were as high as an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame. It even catalyzed a war in 1969 and paused a civil war in 2006. Why is it then that we can’t find the same passion for soccer in the United States?
Dave Eggers entertainingly pondered this very question prior to the last World Cup in 2006. While I don’t completely agree with his rationale, it is not worth getting into all the specific reasons why Americans aren’t passionate about soccer. There are a multitude. It might just be that soccer is not a sport we regularly monitor. Most other countries follow European or local professional leagues in non-World Cup years, just as we follow our big four (three) team sports. Yet, while we don’t follow swimming, we still cheered boisterously when Michael Phelps won each of his eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. We watched many sports during those and other Olympics in which we have no interest during the other three years.
Perhaps, that’s the crux of the issue. The United States is an irrefutable underdog when it comes to soccer. It is hard to think of many other major sporting events where the United States does not have a legitimate chance of claiming victory. But as a New York Mets fan, I implore Americans to embrace our national soccer team’s lowly reputation.
The Mets have a history of disappointing their fans, which is especially disheartening when juxtaposed with the success of New York’s other baseball team, the Yankees. The truth is, though, that I wouldn’t trade positions with a Yankee fan. Just last year the Yankees won their 27th World Series title. It should have been a moment of elation for players and fans alike, but it seemed that outside Alex Rodriguez most were only relieved. The Yankees are expected to win every year, and the burden of that pressure precluded genuine celebration. On the other hand, while we Mets fans continue to have our hopes dashed each fall, we return each season with renewed optimism to enjoy the process of surviving the season. Winning it all would be great, but because it is not expected, we take joy in each small success along the way. If that fateful day does come again, however, we will be found ecstatically blasting off to somewhere just outside the Milky Way Galaxy.
The World Cup provides the same opportunity for Americans to watch a sport for its beauty with little pressure on their team to win. There is little downside, and the upside (serious global bragging rights)—if the US squad can improve on their quarterfinal performance in 2002—is tremendous. Many of you will probably use the World Cup as an excuse for revelry anyway, so you might as well wholeheartedly immerse yourselves in the games. In the meantime if this widely shared Nike soccer ad doesn’t get you pumped, you might as well go back to watching golf.