As I write this, the 2010 World Cup is underway. Host nation South Africa and Mexico are deadlocked at nil, with the crowd in a constant state of delirious buzz. (They just dialed it up to 11 as South Africa scored the first goal of the tournament for a 1-0 at the 55 minute mark) This is truly the biggest sporting event in the world for the most popular sport in the world.
I don’t follow professional soccer, be it the American incarnation, the English Premier League, or any other European or South American team. I won’t offer a prediction since I would be essentially be spinning a globe and sticking a pin in somewhere. The teams I keep hearing are Brazil (of course), Argentina, Spain, Germany, and England. Since this is the first World Cup on the African continent, it is hard to tell how hemispheric traditions will hold. Can a Northern Hemisphere team from Europe win down South? Can a South American team win across the ocean (Like Brazil did in Asia in 2002)? One of the five aforementioned teams will probably win, and bask in the glory for the next four years, and cherish the memory for a lifetime.
I might be the only one with mixed feelings about the American team. I will root them on for obvious patriotic reasons, and they are one of the real underdogs of the World Cup; a nation with a litany of talented athletes that has finally learned to appreciate soccer (through internet access to highlights leading to all sports developing a more international following and the constant melting pot of American culture) but still has yet to achieve international success. Their best World Cup performance was in 1930 when they reached the semi-finals, a scant 80-years ago. If they advance past the round of 16, it would turn many heads in the FIFA community, and perhaps signal to the rest of the world that the US has finally caught on to what they call football.
But have we really? Let’s say the US does advance to the quarterfinals. Or even the semis, or by some miraculous run, the finals. How much would the US fans really care? In the days after the World Cup ends (July 11th) there is the MLB All-Star game and the upcoming trade deadline; NBA free agency will be in full swing led by the LeBron Sweepstakes, and mid-July is when the rumors will be flying; and at the beginning of August NFL training camps and the preseason will start, and Americans will start salivating for American football, their fantasy leagues, and what could be the end of an era in college football. So even if the Americans make an historic run in the World Cup, just how long will it stay in the American sports zeitgeist before it’s pushed aside for an American-based sport?
Soccer is more popular in the United States than ever before, but it still lags behind pro and college football and basketball, baseball, golf, stock-car racing, hockey, mixed martial-arts and ultimate fighting, and arguably tennis in mass popularity. Kids will always play soccer because it is an easy sport for kids to play (and cheap - just compare the amount of equipment a soccer player needs compared to football, baseball, or hockey). But American soccer leagues like MLS will always be second tier to the EPL and other leagues since that is where the real soccer fans are. MLS will be like Euro-basketball leagues or Japanese baseball; a respectable league that can sometimes lure aging stars for big paydays that will have a devoted fan base in the country but will not be the world’s premier league. And Americans want to watch the best. The EPL has gained in popularity in the US because it has many of the world’s best players and teams with storied history.
It would be great to see the underdog Americans shock the world, part of me wants to the see the World Cup go to a country that really appreciates what it means to win it. England has been starving for a World Cup for 44 years. Spain is seeking their first championship. Or just any country where futbol is king, which is most of the countries not in the World Cup not named USA. Soccer has found its place in America, and still has room to grow, but this is the world’s sport, so maybe it would only be right in 2010 for someone else to savor it’s victory.