For the World Cup to win over Americans, soccer shouldn't hide its ugly side
Soccer is the cereal that Mikey just won't eat.
Since the dawn of the World Cup, fans of the game have tried to sell soccer in the United States. European and Latin American transplants have promoted it. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and David Beckham have headlined it. Brandi Chastain tore off her jersey and made the cover of Sports Illustrated after scoring the winning goal for Team USA in the 1999 Women's World Cup final, one of the most dramatic championship games ever played in any sport.
But while almost twice as many U.S. kids today play soccer as play baseball, according to some estimates, the World Cup just underway in South Africa will almost certainly not capture the imaginations of American sports fans the way it mesmerizes the rest of the planet -- not even with a U.S. team that battled England to a 1-1 draw Saturday in the Cup's opening round and with more Americans in the stands than there are ticket-holders from any visiting nation.
Why does soccer remain a global best-seller that America -- so addicted to consumerism that our economy is nearly dying of it -- finds utterly resistible?
Maybe the sales pitch is wrong. Pele spoke of loving the ball, of caressing it with his feet. Nike and others emphasize the joga bonito, the beautiful game. But perhaps the best hook for Americans is not the beauty of soccer, but the fact that the game is also, in truth, pretty ugly.
Soccer has all the chaos, violence, scandal, corruption and controversy that have made other popular American pastimes so big and so irresistible. Promoters shouldn't hide all that behind a veneer of bringing the world together with elegant players and swooping scissor kicks. For better or worse, Americans have come to expect beer and crashes at NASCAR races, showboating and rap sheets from football stars, and pro basketball players with mega-mansions and sex scandals. Soccer -- and the World Cup -- have all that and more.
The first step to help America connect with soccer's dark side is to tear down some of the sport's carefully cultivated image and understand the true nature of the World Cup.
Start with the fact that the World Cup is a bit of a fraud as global phenomena go. While sports writers extol its universal appeal, the quadrennial tournament is actually a pretty exclusive affair. Since the first cup in 1930, only a tiny club of four western European and three Latin American countries have won it all. In fact, three national teams have combined to win 12 of the 18 World Cups -- Brazil five times, Italy four and Germany (including West Germany) three.
The tournament's traditional champions have typically represented nations that during the past century were marked by defeats and setbacks. Spain, for example, now stands at the edge of a financial precipice -- but along with Brazil it has one of the best and most balanced teams competing in this year's cup.
So while soccer is touted as a powerful globalizing force, it has in part earned that status by keeping out or down some of the globe's most powerful nations. It's not just that the United States remains in the second tier of soccer's ranks. Other big and emerging powers, such as China, India, Russia and Japan, have also failed to leave their mark in the world's most important sports tournament. China has qualified just once, in 2002, and its team failed to score a single goal. India qualified by default in 1950 but refused to attend when told that its team, accustomed to playing barefoot, had to wear shoes. Japan is currently ranked 45th in the world, right after Gabon, Scotland and Ecuador, and three spots up from Burkina Faso. China, at No. 84, edges out Mozambique and Malawi. The Soviet Union's best showing at the World Cup was fourth place, in 1966.
They'll be cheering in Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia), Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast) during this World Cup, but no crowds will be dancing in the streets of Moscow, Beijing or New Delhi, because none of their teams qualified. And though many in Washington will be tuned in, alas, a disproportionate chunk of those fans can be found on Embassy Row or in expat bars.
Maybe that would change, however, if America saw through all the glittering globo-babble and realized that the World Cup may be the last place on Earth where the United States can credibly play the role of underdog, the last remaining frontier where the country has yet to triumph over the old order dominated by Europe and its former empires.