I grew up in the States so Soccer (football) was something I knew little about. Kick ball was the closest I got to soccer and it was more like a foot version of baseball. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned about FIFA’s World Cup.
The most popular sporting events for American kids are national championships of various kinds: football, baseball, basketball, all of which happen on pro (private franchises) and college levels and are played on American soil.
Teams from other countries, however, often play internationally and are national not private. Competitors are developed through clubs and begin aspiring at a young age to represent their local and national governments playing sport. This marks a huge difference in the way sporting structures are organized between the US and other countries.
US competitors are developed through a collegiate system and are channeled into private sport franchises. As a rule they don’t grow up aspiring to represent their nation in athletic competition. That may be one reason the Ryder Cup boys haven’t faired so well in recent years. Americans aren’t as motivated to “play” for national pride as Europeans. Why else would Colin Montgomerie perform so well during the RC? Only in recent years have Americans begun to take nation-based competition seriously and we’re still trying to master the mindset.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the European Ryder Cup teams began beating the slap out of the US that American spectators started paying attention. Living in the largest sporting bubble on planet earth produced a sense of invincibility which the Ryder Cup experience proved was more imagined than real. The RC helped open the eyes of a sleeping giant that had previously been unaware of international possibilities.
Nowadays, Several American sports are represented by international bodies: Basketball (FIBA), Baseball (IBAF) and even Football (IFAF) but none of these organizations carries much weight with US spectators, or the world for that matter. The main stage is still on American soil so these international efforts are merely novel. Golf does have an international body (IGA) but it is for amateurs only.
Soccer, however, is different. For some reason the game was never reworked with an American slant. It has been played in America for a long time but not on a large scale. It was always played somewhere else by someone else. The fan base was sparse and there weren’t that many serious development programs. And we did things differently which made it difficult to mesh with international communities.
But things have changed for the American culture and for me. For the past twenty plus years I have lived in South Africa and, through FIFA’s World Cup extravaganza, have had more exposure to the sport. At the same time, the interest and the coverage of soccer in the US has grown extensively. It is now played in its original format, completely un-Americanized, on a large scale and the US has been represented in the last six World Cup events.
My first real interest in the game developed when the US qualified for the Japan/Korea 2002 World Cup. I saw the matches live and it was great to see the US make it through the first round even though they were eliminated in the next.
I didn’t start following the sport at that time, though, and the 2006 event came and went without much notice from me. I did watch the final and was very pleased that Italy won but other than that wasn’t too aware of the goings on. About the only thing I took away from 2006 was learning that the World Cup is the biggest, most attended and most televised sport event in the world, all thanks to the hard work and brilliance of the FIFA organizers.
And then, of course, the 2010 Word Cup was staged in South Africa, my front door, and I have to admit I was really impressed! I realized then just how well organized the FIFA boys are. For them it’s not just a game.
The events were accessible to every person in the country. Every match was broadcast live on public TV (free) and large screen viewing, free to the public, was organized in many prominent locations throughout the country. It was amazing! No one was left out.
I watched several matches on TV and attended one – US vs Slovenia, expensive. To be honest I prefer watching on TV. You see more. I had to attend one match though because it was the World Cup. When else could I attend this event so easily?
The most significant observation was the fact that thousands of people from very diverse countries made the effort to attend the matches in droves and other than a few heated words here or a mild misunderstanding there, it was peaceful. The fans passionately cheered, chanted (I don’t get that) and sung (or that) their teams to victory but no blood was let and everyone went home having enjoyed the occasion.
And for South Africa it was great! Jobs were created, infrastructure was established, skills were developed and a great foundation was laid for more of the same.
Here’s the truth: FIFA has done more for world amiability and economic sharing than politics ever could. Everyone loves healthy competition and Soccer organizers have found a way to tap that for the good. The organization brings the world together in way no other sporting or political event has.
FIFA has 208 member nations representing every development level – first to third – and the people who play come from every economic background. All of these countries vie feverishly to qualify for this quadrennial event and celebrate with abandon when they do.
Population isn’t an issue either. Slovenia, whose population barely tops 2 million, had thousands of people at the matches – like all the other nations – and every country had an equal footing. Where else could a country so small (Slovenia) compete against a country so large (US 300 million) and have a good chance of winning? If it wasn’t for the miracle working abilities of Donovan and Bradley the Slov’s would have won.
I was very proud to wear my American colors to the match and would loved to have seen the US advance further but the experience helped me realize that nation based sporting events occur on a level playing field. Although the World Cup generates an unthinkable amount of commerce the competition itself is not about money or size. Its 90% heart. Each player knows they are watched by the entire world and carry the hope of a nation on their shoulders. It doesn’t get more exciting than that. The US won’t win this one easily. It will take their very best talent playing their very best game and even then it might not happen.
I still have questions about the sport itself. Some things, like reffing, need to be modified but hats off to FIFA for a job well done.
What do you THINK!AboutIt?