America comes to soccer

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As the quadrennial World Cup kicked off, syndicated columnist Ann Coulter did what she does best, drawing attention to herself with world-class trolling, declaring, “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” If so, we’re going to hell.

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Sports historian Curt Smith quips, “I have the maximum number of fingers and toes, and I don’t have nearly enough to count the times soccer purists have counted this, that or another event as The Event that will make soccer big-time.”

Yet, while there’s no sign that the NFL, NBA or MLB are in any danger of being overtaken, American interest in the sport is undeniably on the rise. More Americans watched Team U.S.A. tie Portugal than watched the deciding games of the most recent NBA finals or the World Series — and the ratings dwarfed those of the NHL finals.

Moreover, while the patriotic fervor that grips Americans at the Olympics and quickly goes away when their team is eliminated or the tournament ends is doubtless part of it, something different is happening this time.

The most-watched match of the 2010 World Cup didn’t have red, white and blue on the pitch; it was the Spain-Netherlands final. This year, the two semifinal matches continued to set record American ratings despite our boys having been eliminated.

Both Germany’s historic embarrassment of Brazil and Argentina’s shootout win over the Netherlands in what had been a nil-nil tie drew bigger numbers than the NHL finals.

It’s natural, I suppose, that American interest in the World Cup would be growing, given the low starting point. After Team U.S.A. beat England in the 1950 World Cup, it failed to qualify for the next nine tournaments, not resurfacing again until 1990.

We hosted in 1994 and went to the round of 16; failed to advance out of the group stage in 1998; and made it all the way to the quarters in 2002. After failing to advance in 2006, we made it to the round of 16 the last two tournaments.

So, it’s only been the last 20 years that we’ve paid any attention to the World Cup and only very recently that we’ve had any reasonable expectation at all of being competitive. (Yes, I’m aware that the U.S. women won it all in 1991 and 1999; no, it’s not the same.)

And it’s not just the Cup. Despite by most accounts being a relative minor league, Major League Soccer (MLS) actually sells out its stadiums at a rate that would be the envy of the NBA and NHL. And even the European game, especially the English Premier League (EPL), has a pretty strong following nowadays.

Meanwhile, Coulter’s argument seems even more absurd to those of us who took even a casual interest in this year’s tournament.

She contends, “Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. ... There are no heroes, no losers, no accountability.”

See Tim Howard, the U.S. keeper who kept us in the matches against Germany and Belgium until the very end. Or the Brazilian national team, who carried the hopes of a nation on their backs and collapsed under the weight.

And I can’t remember the last time an American sporting figure took the blame so completely as Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, giving so much credit to his opponent and so steadfastly refusing to hide behind even very good excuses.

Coulter snipes, “No serious sport is co-ed, even at the kindergarten level.” Actually, Little League baseball has been co-ed for 40 years now.

She declares, “The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport.” Talk to the Brazilian team about humiliation. And to their star forward, Neymar, who missed the semifinal match against Germany after having his back broken — he was fortunate not to have been paralyzed — in the team’s win against Colombia.

(Poor Andrés Escobar, the Colombia defender, was murdered shortly after his “own goal,” a goal scored against his own team, against Team U.S.A., eliminating his nation from the 1994 Cup.)

The rest of the “argument” was even sillier, arguing that the sport is too “foreign” and being somehow imposed upon America by liberals. Like the metric system.

Now, it’s true that liberals seem to care more about the World Cup than moderates and conservatives. But that’s likely a byproduct of the fact that the sport is so popular among the Hispanic population and that gridiron football is a civic religion in the Deep South and the Southwest.

I’ve been noticing the past couple of years that the people I follow on Twitter — mostly highly educated, national security types — were shockingly interested in the games of the major European soccer associations, notably the EPL. While I’d chalked that up as an elite coastal thing, I’m assured by a former colleague that his sons and their friends — who grew up playing soccer in Montgomery, Ala., of all places — are wildly enthusiastic about televised soccer.

Now, again, I don’t think the NFL is even slightly worried that fútbol will overtake football in popularity. But, outside of a few key markets, baseball, basketball and hockey are niche sports whose following rises and falls wildly depending on the success of the local team.

Further, as a regular commenter on my blog pointed out to me, MLS doesn’t have to be the venue by which soccer establishes itself as a major sport here. The globalization of media makes it possible for Americans to root for the very best soccer players in the world, even if they don’t happen to be Americans.

The NBA and NHL have rabid followings outside North America; it’s not inconceivable that we’re coming to the point when the EPL and the Spanish league, La Liga, will have huge American followings as well.

James Joyner, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps 
Command and Staff College, is the publisher of OutsideTheBeltway.com.