In the aftermath of last week’s World Cup fiasco, I found myself wondering – how is it that the USA men’s team was beaten so badly? Obviously, the team’s level of talent doesn’t approach that of their African and European counterparts.
But more interesting than the US team’s humiliating performance was the fact that nobody even noticed. The world has gone ape for the World Cup, but here in the US, World Cup news is what gets shoved into newscasts between baseball scores and NHL draft news.
So, here’s my attempt at an explanation as to why soccer is so popular worldwide, and why folks in the US generally don’t care.
Soccer is popular worldwide because it is:
- Cheap. Players don’t have to have ice rinks, helmets, pads, or specialized equipment. Even clothes aren’t really necessary. All that you need is a ball, and even that’s optional. Got anything round? Look around you. See that rock over there? Sure, it’s roundish, let’s use it. How about that coconut? Coconut – Check. The severed head of an enemy? Perfecto!
- Easy to learn. There is no more simple sport in the world than soccer, with its one rule: NO HANDS. No long lists of rules to remember, no binders full of play books to memorize, no weeklong strategy meetings between staff coaches. Just get the ball from here, over to there, and don’t use your hands. A man raised by monkeys could wander out of the rainforest naked into the nearest village and be playing soccer with the tribesmen in five minutes. And five minutes after that, he’d be screaming at the ref after getting a red card for slide tackling the chief’s son.
- It can be played anywhere. Try and find a hockey rink in subsaharan Mauritania, or a squash court in Siberia. Conversely, soccer can be played in any climate, indoors or outdoors, at any time of the year, and on any surface (except for water – although there are some who believe that’s what Jesus and Peter were actually doing on the Sea of Galilee).
Give soccer fans credit, though, for how insanely loyal they are to their teams. Soccer fans set a high bar for riots. Sure, it’s great when Manchester is winning, but it’s absolutely divine when the victory is accompanied by the sweet, sweet smell of tear gas.
So why isn’t soccer as popular here in the US as it is elsewhere in the world? Certainly the rules aren’t too difficult for us to learn. Certainly we can afford it. Certainly our fans can riot with the best of them. Why isn’t soccer the nation’s national pastime?
The answer is deceptively obvious, and it lies within the embarrassing performance put on by the US men at the World Cup. Quite simply, our best athletes prefer to play other sports. The toughest, fastest, and best-conditioned athletes in the US are playing for football, basketball, and hockey teams.
I’m not saying that US soccer players aren’t exceptional athletes. I’m saying that the best European athletes play soccer, the best Central American athletes play soccer, and so on. But the best US athletes don’t. Not collectively, anyhow.
I believe the main reason for this is the strong enticement for young athletes to pursue careers in the NFL, NBA, NHL, etc. Of course, now the US has the professional MLS league (which includes our beloved Crew), but it’s still in its infancy when it comes to attracting sponsors and making its stars household names. And that has to wear down on someone who loves to play the game, but wants/needs to be known and remembered as a great athlete. If that’s not important to him, he’ll play soccer. Or football for UM.