One of my favorite pairs of soccer podcast and TV personalities, The Men in Blazers, like to use an ironic phrase to describe the United States’ relationship with soccer: “Soccer: America’s sport of the future … since 1972.”
It’s a phrase equal parts humorous and honest. The world’s game, populated with the sort of global mega celebrities that need only one name for recognition – Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar – that would make even LeBron envious, has never truly captured the attention of Americans. This is again apparent as we get ready for the 21st World Cup that will kick off in Russia on June 14 when the hosts take on Saudi Arabia at 11 a.m.
There is no way to overstate the importance and impact of the World Cup. Its month-long run of 32 countries competing in 64 matches is by far the most watched sporting event in the world. While 103.4 million viewers tuned into watch the Eagles beat the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, more than 3.2 billion tuned into the 2014 World Cup. More than one billion watched the final between Argentina and Germany.
Yet, in the United States, the World Cup will likely have a hard time denting mid-season series ratings in Major League Baseball. And that’s in no small part due to the fact that the United States failed to qualify for the tournament for reasons far too complicated to get into in a 500-word column. Suffice it to say that when the national team needed to secure nothing more than a draw with Trinidad and Tobago, a nation with a total population a few hundred thousand shy of Philadelphia, it imploded.
Americans who delight in hating the sport for its foreignness will no doubt be delighted. I’m sure some are already composing responses to this column in their heads – five-paragraph variations on the phrase “Soccer blows.” For them, the United States’ inability to succeed in the men’s game is all the evidence they need that it’s not worth watching.
(It’s worth noting that American’s disinterest in the sport is entirely due to the inability of our national men’s team of competing at the highest level. When the U.S. women beat Japan in the 2015 Women’s World Cup, 25.4 million Americans watched, making it the single most-watched soccer match in U.S. history.)
So why should Americans tune in? There is simply nothing else like it on the planet. And in a world in which so much seems to work to divide us, the one thing most people on the planet can agree on is soccer – football for everyone else.
It might take a while, but soccer is the sport of our future. Yes, it is as likely to be marred by corruption and racism as anything else, but by and large, its greatness is based on the fact that it brings so many different people together. And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.