World Cup: Welcome to Fútbol, Middle America

World Cup: Welcome to Fútbol, Middle America

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 In the waning minutes of the USA – Ghana World Cup 2010 game, as it became clear that the USA was out of come-from-behind memes, the sadness and disappointment descending on American crowds from Manhattan oyster bars to Kansas City plazas to San Francisco cafes signaled a cultural transformation. Middle America had gotten seduced by the beautiful game and it broke its heart.

Immigrants in the US have long stoked their passion for soccer by filling Giants Stadium and Soldier Field to capacity for exhibition matches between foreign teams such as Barcelona FBC from Spain vs Chivas from Mexico and on a regular basis filling the smaller soccer friendly Major League Soccer (MLS) soccer stadiums. And quadrennially they have packed their ethnic neighborhood bodegas, bars, and homes with painted faces and national team jerseys to cheer on their teams till hoarse. But the big story in the United States this time was the ecstatic white male ((Despite it’s ethnocentric view that equates “the world” to the USA, a compelling bit of video.) crowds in the American heartland — in Louisville, Kentucky in Kansas City, Missouri, in Burlington, Vermont — emotionally committed with how the USA did.

There they were at 9 on a Tuesday morning glued to the TV sets either at home or in a public place, grabbing their heads in response to the near American misses, holding their breaths as the British, Ghanaians, Slovenians, and Algerians counterattacked, yelling out in ecstasy as American strikers drilled the ball into the back of the net.

Here’s how Kansas City Star described one of these new fans:

He’d rather stay anonymous because he’s a grown man with a family and, well, otherwise respectable adults just aren’t supposed to paint their faces and be half-tilted in the early afternoon. But then again here he is, in the middle of a Saturday, wearing an American flag across his face that he strategically kept away from his lips because he didn’t want to taste it with his Miller Lite. “I usually don’t like to watch big games in big crowds,” he says. “But how could I not come out here?”

As I witnessed all this, I flashbacked to when I first moved to the United States a college student. I had made the Northwestern soccer team as a midfielder the first year it was upgraded from a club to a varsity sport, and while through this I connected to nomadic tribes of a cult sport, in mainstream American soccer was invisible. It was hard to find fields with soccer goal posts. Our games were sparsely attended. As I traveled to Big Ten Tournaments across the Midwest, my non-soccer friends at the university kept forgetting I would be out for the weekend at a soccer tourney. Sports columnists either disparaged soccer, or apologized sheepishly if they had happened to be excited about a great play.

Worst of all, during the 1986 World Cup hosted by Mexico, I couldn’t find a single channel on TV that was broadcasting the games. This was inconceivable to me.

Back in Peru at World Cup time, whether Peru was in it or not, the World Cup was the talk of the day whether we were in the middle of a dictatorship, a financial meltdown, or a natural disaster. If a World Cup game where Peru was playing happened to be on during the school day, one of us would bring a portable 2′ by 2′ black and white TV, plug it into a classroom socket, move the rabbit ears to reduce the fuzziness, and gather round on the floor amidst our history textbooks and spiral notepads. This was la vida. Life! But in the United States, this biggest of stages with billions around the world mesmerized was mostly invisible. In Chicago, our small band of sports renegades had to scour for bars doing special live satellite transmissions.

Fast forward to today in the United States of America. Every single game is transmitted on ESPN/ABC and on Univisión, the Spanish language network. There are pre- and post-game shows. There are experienced commentators from around the world. There is an iphone app that answers every game stat query imaginable, and — wouldn’t you know it — there’s even a live feed of the games to feed the addiction.

Soccer fields dot the American landscape, not only in the multiethnic cities but also across the Nebraska tundra. In fact, now it’s the most common sports field around. More male and female kids, teens, and college students play soccer than any other sport. While in college, it was rare for me to meet someone who had grown up playing soccer. Today most Millennials talk about their firsthand experience with the sport. When I coached AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) teams for seven years as our daughter was growing up, I never got over the fact that in our city of Highland Park in Illinois we had over 450 kids enrolled on teams.

During this South Africa World Cup, the trend and movement have crested. In the United States, after sweeping up immigrant groups, then kids and, by default their parents, this time it rolled in that group those that did not grow up with it, did not understand it, had made fun of it for the longest time. And when the USA team began unfolding a Hollywood style story (as described here in earlier post), it finally fit an American narrative that got Middle America’s attention. We can now add fútbol to globalization’s financial, technological, and environmental tendrils that have interconnected the entire world.

Suddenly what had been the love of affair of handfuls has become the love affair of millions.

But will it be a lasting relationship or simply a summer fling?