Vantage point

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Soccer and the US

As readers of this blog know, I am not really interested in soccer. I follow developments in the World Cup because it is hard not to, given that all my friends are soccer-nuts. So I have watched World Cup matches over the years, without really supporting a team.

This time though, the first World Cup since I left India, I have a team to support - United States! Admittedly, a very lazy choice, and driven solely by the fact that I am a permanent resident of this country. I knew practically zilch about the US team before the World Cup started. I had heard the name Landon Donovan. And I had heard that they beat Spain last year. But that's about it.

So supporting a team while watching the World Cup of a sport I find booooring, has been an interesting experience. Mainly because the US team's fortunes in this World Cup have moved as if at the whims of a script writer. Seriously, it all seems straight out of a Hollywood sports movie.

An underrated team that few people in its own country follow or care for. And each match progresses with immense drama. First a draw against England, a much stronger team because of a freakish own goal. Then coming from 0-2 down against Slovenia to equalize in the last ten minutes, scoring a goal in the fag end to take the lead, but being denied the win because of a horrendous call by the referee. Then against Algeria, scoring a goal in regular time but being denied it because of another wrong referee call. Then in injury time, an unusual goal off a rebound, to win and advance to the next round. Such epic material for a movie!

So now I find myself paying attention to soccer conversations that happen among my friends. One friend, Yogesh, who is a huge soccer fan, said, "The US still lack a discernible style, but it will develop as the game gets more mainstream in US consciousness."

Which got me thinking. It is an interesting question - whether soccer will get "mainstream" in the US. Depends on the definition of mainstream. The way I understand it, in terms of sports scheduling, media coverage and all, I don't see it happening. The big 4 domestic leagues (football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey) pretty much have the whole year sewn up. Then there are the 2 super popular college leagues (football and basketball) which are also mainstream. I don't see any room for soccer. To be truly mainstream, it has to go beyond just getting attention every 4 years, and its domestic league games need to become famous and well-followed in the mainstream. For which there is no room.

Now, the question is, does the sport becoming mainstream have anything to do with the national team's skill? Evidence from 3 of the big 4 shows otherwise. The baseball "world cup" was started recently, 2 editions held. Both were won by Japan. In the first one, US didn't even reach the semis. In the second one, they were ranked 4th. In the 5 Olympics since 1992 that baseball has been a medal sport in, US has won only one gold (2000) and two bronze. So despite baseball being a mainstream phenomenon, the US national team is way behind Cuba and Japan (and even South Korea) on the world stage.

Basketball, similar story. The last 4-year world championship that US won was in 1994. Their domination in Olympics is more substantive but getting patchier; they won the gold medal in Beijing, but only the bronze in 2004. In Ice Hockey, the US last won a gold in 1980, and in the 30 years since, has only 2 silvers.

Coming back to soccer, it may not be "mainstream" but is growing rapidly in the US. The US-England soccer match was watched by 17 million in America, a bigger viewership than 5 of the 7 NBA finals games which happened this month too. The US apparently has more registered soccer players than any nation in the world. And although the domestic soccer league is not comparable to the big 4, it still draws a sufficient crowd. So although not in the mainstream consciousness, soccer is gaining players and followers in the US.

The US national team itself is going from strength to strength. It is currently ranked 14th in the world, which is higher than well-reckoned soccer-crazy countries such as Mexico, Uruguay and Chile. Then there's the 2009 Confederations Cup in which the US did extremely well. They beat Spain, then ranked #1 in the world, 2-0 in the semis. In the finals again Brazil, they were leading 2-0 at the end of the first half, and lost 2-3. So on their day, they can give the best in the world a tough time.

This time, they qualified without losing, and their path to the semis looks relatively easy. So who knows how far the team might go. No matter how far the team goes though, the dream of soccer going "mainstream" still may not get any help. But it will certainly help the game grow.