Soccer? Football? However you say it, the Yanks are coming
WASHINGTON -- The 2010 World Cup, which kicks off Friday in Johannesburg, will present a number of intriguing match-ups that will play out on green grass, not on international waters, in conference rooms, or through diplomatic backchannels. But more than that, it will lay bare a narrowing gap between the traditional soccer powers of Europe -- Germany, Spain, Italy -- and, in one of its few remaining areas of scrappy international underdog-ness, the United States. The United States has been historically insignificant on the football pitch, save for a startling 1-0 victory over England 60 years ago that sets up Saturday’s anticipated rematch, a quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 World Cup, and a narrow defeat to Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup final after a shocking win over top-ranked Spain. But that ground is shifting, and Europe should begin to take notice. Starting from a seed planted when the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, the United States has slowly nurtured soccer through the still-growing Major League Soccer (MLS), through farming out its best players to European clubs (of the 23 players on the U.S. squad, 17 are currently plying their trade in Europe, including at such storied clubs as AC Milan, Rangers, Everton, and Villareal), and through a generation of children more likely to kick a ball than swing a baseball bat. Even though a recent New York Times Magazine piece questioned the tenets guiding the soccer development system in the United States -- every player is equally important, competition is favored at the cost of skills development, parents bear the cost burden instead of the football club, and university-level sports are a priority -- it noted that that system is beginning to change and, given favorable demographics, could bear fruit in a matter of years. Twelve years ago, the United States Soccer Federation -- the sport’s domestic governing body -- set up Project 2010, a $50 million development plan that would set the United States on course to be a legitimate contender at this year’s World Cup. In the sense of its ultimate goal, Project 2010 failed -- it implemented a few key training programs but otherwise became less of a guide as 2010 approached. But in the sense of changing attitudes, training, and ability, it made this year’s U.S. World Cup team look much more like it belongs in the tournament. While the U.S. team is not a contender for the crown, it has enough talent and experience to cause trouble along with enough question marks and inconsistency to exasperate its fans. While the United States is favored to get out of the group stage (after England but before Slovenia and Algeria), even that is not a given. The reality is that the United States should institute Project 2014 or 2018. Like many big undertakings, the initial timeline was too short. Although a few American players are in their prime -- including midfielders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard -- a crop of young, gifted players are just beginning their careers and need more seasoning, like the dangerous 20-year-old forward Jozy Altidore. Perhaps what is most surprising about these developments is that American sports fans -- long ignorant of “the beautiful game” -- are starting to pay attention. Americans have bought more 2010 World Cup tickets than any other nation. Several American cable television channels -- including the all-footie Fox Soccer Channel -- regularly carry European, South American, and even Australian(!) professional matches. I see England’s Arsenal on national television nearly as often as I see the St. Louis Cardinals baseball club. American college students spending a semester abroad in Europe are returning with an appreciation for, and a rooting interest in, continental football. While it may be stomach-turning (and admittedly still improbable) to think of the dastardly Americans winning a World Cup in a “European” sport in the next 10 years, fear not, Europe. While soccer is shifting in the United States’ favor, several “American” sports are tilting toward you. Take, for instance, basketball, where European players such as Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, and Peja Stojakovic are now stars in the National Basketball Association. Spain’s Paul Gasol is a big (and tall) reason the Los Angeles Lakers are in the NBA Finals. European players have been standouts in the National Hockey League for years. Even baseball, the most American of American pastimes, has scouts patrolling European baseball leagues from the Netherlands to Italy. Heck, Germany has overtaken even the U.S. women’s soccer team, long the dominant international force, to win the last two Women’s World Cups. You are starting to get us where we feel it, too. This convergence is the natural effect of globalization -- satellite television, cultural exchange, the Internet. But even more than that, this is a period of change in the transatlantic sports relationship that at some level will alter how we view each other. The United States’ respect on the global playing field may wax and wane based on various temporary factors -- the president in office, the global economy, the positioning of the U.S. military -- but the soccer pitch is another matter. We aren’t asking for you to root for us, only to respect us. William P. Bohlen is the Director of Communications at the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.