If you are anything like the average American sports fan, then you are surely asking yourself right now, "Why should I care about the World Cup?" After all, people have been claiming soccer will be the next great American Pastime for the last four decades, yet year after year it remains a niche sport in the US.
Here's the thing about Americans, we love winners and we want to see the best of the best. For example, while making the Olympics is a monumental feat in and of itself, only those who win Gold are immortalized on a Wheaties box; win a Silver or Bronze and (barring overt political statements or infamous tragedies) you relinquish your place in history, along with the endorsements, finding yourself relegated to the realm of answers to obscure trivia questions.
In other words, it's not that Americans don't like soccer. It's that Americans don't like bad soccer.
On the contrary, this tournament represents everything that American fans love: world-class American athletes playing for the highest stakes. It is the largest, most popular, single sport international tournament in the world. Imagine taking the spectacle of the Superbowl and combining it with March Madness. This is America's opportunity to witness some of the best individual athleticism, on par with Steve Young's Great Escape, in plays such as the Goal of the Century and other incredible mind numbing feats. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what you can expect in South Africa this summer.
I should also address another criticism of the "world sport," that being the apparent lack of scoring. Well, fair enough--many games do end 1-0 or 2-1. But consider this: if touchdowns in American football counted for two points and field goals for one, we'd see an quite a few 2-1 games in the NFL as well. All the same, Adidas (official sponsor of the World Cup) has created a new ball for the 2010 World Cup that will supposedly convert more scoring opportunities into goals. Not surprisingly, the new orb is universally hated by goalkeepers.
Despite having played soccer from the time I was 5 years old through college, I sympathize with the non-fans. As I said before, we only want to see the best. Major League Baseball has the best players from around the world. The NFL outlasts every upstart league because of the quality of play. The NBA imports the best foreign players every year. However, in soccer, we run out a second rate league in which virtually none of the best players in the world arrive until they are over the hill. At the same time, we send our best players overseas. Additionally, we are constantly told the real name of the game is "football." This leads to the inevitable comparisons to what we know as football.
Finally, a country that prides itself for a blue collar work ethic, toughness, and grinding it out can't take seriously a sport that appears to reward blatant theatrics. However, while flopping is overly prevalent in soccer, the guilty parties are often punished (unlike their equivalents in American sport).
Among all this there is a hidden truth: Americans actually like soccer. Look past the soccer moms, youth soccer clubs, and soft label. On two separate occasions high level soccer has been played in the US, and on both occasions Americans attended in significant numbers.
Top-class soccer began in the US with the now defunct NASL during the late 70's and early 80's. The league's most iconic franchise, the New York Cosmos, went out and signed many international stars including all time greats Franz Beckenbauer and Pele. The Cosmos were so star-studded that they averaged about 45,000 fans a game over a 3 year period from 1977 to 1979--including drawing over 70,000 fans for the championship game. To put that into perspective, they were outdrawing the 1977-78 World Champion Yankees by well over 15,000 fans per game during the same span.
A generation of kids were inspired by the 1994 United States National Team when the US hosted the World Cup. The team caught the hearts of America with colorful personalities such as Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, and goalkeeper Tony Meola. While there were concerns about giving the World Cup to a country who (at the time) lacked a professional soccer league, Americans eradicated all concerns when they attended games in record numbers averaging 69,000 fans per game. This is still the record attendance for any World Cup.
Where are those inspired youths today? They are your current National Team, representing the United States in South Africa next week.
Check back next week for Part II of this preview where I break down the field of 32 and discuss where the United States stands.
(Photo Credit: Constantly Offside)