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Passing in the Night

Notes on the World Cup, American fans, and watching soccer in the wee hours of the morning

By Stephen Leon

I heard my name shouted from across the street; it was Paul, whom I had met years ago during an impromptu trivia session on New York Rangers lore. We had become friends, and occasionally watched hockey together. I had forgotten that he also was interested in soccer, and so at first was surprised by his question.

“You watching the game tonight?”

Early on in this year’s World Cup, I found it frustrating to try and follow the unfolding drama. With Japan and South Korea as the host nations, live start times for the matches ranged, here on the East Coast, from the ungodly hour of 2:30 AM to the more manageable 7:30 AM (evening over on the Western Pacific Rim). The day I saw Paul, the United States was to play the following morning at 2:30; while some of my Cup-crazy friends were going to bed early and setting their alarm clocks for the wee, wee hours, I protested that 2:30 was both too early and too late.

Not Paul: He informed me that at 2:30, he would head over to a local bar where the overnight games were being shown to neighborhood soccer enthusiasts.

Schedules aside, the 2002 World Cup gave me two pleasant surprises: the inspired performance of the U.S. team, and the sheer number of people I encountered who were watching the games and talking about them at work, on the street, in bars, on the phone. The last two Cups were easier to follow: The 1994 tournament was played here in the United States, and with France hosting in 1998, it merely meant that matches were shown here in the morning and afternoon. (That year, any Metroland employee who wished to watch the games on the conference-room TV was free to do so, the boss giving tacit approval by his own example.) So it seems remarkable to me, given the relative inconvenience of this year’s games, that the buzz on the street seemed louder than ever.

It also seems remarkable to me that every four years we hear U.S. sports pundits debate the same tired questions about soccer’s popularity and its chances of ever “succeeding” here as a spectator sport. Doubters, especially those who approach the topic with a xenophobic zeal to affirm the superiority of American sports, tend to dismiss soccer as boring, insist that it will never appeal to Americans, and speculate that its worldwide popularity stems from little more than the fact that the rest of the world did not grow up blessed with exposure to baseball, football and basketball. Meanwhile, soccer’s staunch supporters, their Cup ever half-full, perpetually cling to the hope that this will be the tournament that catapults U.S. soccer over the top of the mountain and into the lush green valley of commercial success.

“Why doesn’t soccer doesn’t appeal to Americans?” is an off-point question based on a false premise, because soccer does appeal to a great many Americans. Never mind that more than 3 million youths play organized soccer, and that adult recreational leagues—indoor as well as outdoor—continue to expand. There are now millions among us who enjoy watching the sport from time to time, especially the World Cup. The quarterfinal match between Germany and the United States drew a huge U.S. television audience—the largest ever for a soccer game, in fact, even larger than that for the last U.S. women’s World Cup final (of course, who knew Brandi would take her shirt off . . .).

Now that women’s final two years ago—like the U.S.-Germany match two weeks ago—was supposed to be one of those defining moments, the ushering in of a new era of widespread soccer popularity in the United States, upon which the pro league would grow and thrive and rake in huge network television revenues. And I don’t think that’s going to happen any time in the near future. So I think the question is not “Why don’t Americans like soccer,” but “Why isn’t soccer a hugely successful, media-saturated spectator sport?” And the answer, I think, says more about the culture of the American entertainment industry than it does about the overall appeal of soccer.

Perhaps soccer, with its international flavor and subtle nuances, and the fact that understanding the game does require of viewers a certain intellectual engagement, is to the world of major American spectator sports as foreign films are to Hollywood. Let’s face it, the sport is not imbedded as a cultural ritual, and will not suddenly inspire millions to turn it on reflexively every evening, as they do for baseball, or even every week, as they do for Sunday afternoon NFL games. Soccer also will not suddenly inspire the level of media saturation afforded the “major” sports, which, incidentally, would never maintain their current popularity levels without it.

And I don’t care. Soccer doesn’t need the cheapening influence of the national entertainment hype machine, and certainly doesn’t need to be altered to fit the American model of how to sell sports to a mass audience. On the other hand, if our national soccer gurus would like to increase the sport’s spectator interest during the long wait between World Cups, why not more exposure to Division 1 NCAA soccer, which has something the pro leagues here have never really had: established traditions, rivalries and hometown fan bases.

In the meantime, I’ll settle for a Cup every four years, and savor its fleeting drama. And its disappointments, like the early exits of France, who played so splendidly in winning the ’98 Cup, and Argentina, highly touted and hoping to transcend its national economic woes. England is always fun to watch, with exciting (and tabloid-friendly) stars like David Beckham and Michael Owen, though their departure always seems untimely. I have grudging respect for the Germans, who I thought were outplayed by Cameroon and the United States, but who won those games through sheer determination (along with the fact that they may be the world’s most precise team, and best in the air). And how sweet it was for Ronaldo, two-goal star of Brazil’s Cup final win over Germany, redeeming his country for their final-game dismantling by France in ’98 (Ronaldo cried both times, it has been noted).

The weirdest story to emerge from this year’s Cup (no one’s been shot yet, have they?) is that of South Korean midfielder Ahn Jung-Hwan, who eliminated Italy with an overtime goal, upon which the chairman of his Italian club team announced that his contract would not be renewed. “That gentleman will never set foot in Perugia again,” said club chairman Luciano Gaucci. “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian soccer.” As my brother-in-law remarked, it would appear that Gaucci has lost all perspective.

Best of all were the Cinderella stories, namely South Korea, who knocked over European icons one by one on their way to the semifinals, and the United States, who survived the first round despite one awful loss to Poland, had impressive wins against Portugal and Mexico, and actually saved their best for the quarterfinal against Germany. Attacking, pressing, finding creative ways to move the ball upfield and find the seams in Germany’s stingy defense, the Americans nearly scored several times, stymied only by the excellent goalkeeping of Oliver Kahn (and once by sheer bad luck). In a 1-0 loss, it was the most beautiful and creative soccer the United States has ever played in the World Cup—and it bodes well for our future as an international contender.

As to soccer’s future in the United States? Whatever its chances commercially, it clearly has filtered into the zeitgeist. Hell, even my 4- and 6-year-olds watched the 7:30 AM games with rapt attention, and later, when playing a mini-game against each other, would announce that the game’s opponents were, say, Italy and Senegal. In eight or 12 or 16 years, the next time the Cup is on the other side of the world, I think I’ll know where to find them in the middle of the night.

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