A World of Difference

In the small hours of Wednesday, June 5, on the other side of the world, 11 young Americans will acknowledge “The Star Spangled Banner” before taking to the field to represent their country in the biggest single sporting event in the world. Although television will carry pictures of the United States soccer team’s opening match to billions of viewers worldwide, in their homeland their efforts seem likely to register little more than a blip on the national consciousness.

With worldwide television audiences expected to be in the region of 4 billion, “Planet Football’s” obsession with soccer will reach its quadrennial zenith with the kickoff of the 2002 Soccer World Cup in Japan and South Korea Friday morning. However, while much of the world will succumb to “World Cup fever” during the next four weeks, the United States, despite the best efforts of soccer’s world governing body FIFA, continues to seem immune to the lure of the sport dubbed by soccer legend Pele as “the beautiful game.” Senior Caz Hodge summed up the reaction to the World Cup shared by many Americans.

“I’m really not into watching the ball go back and forth without any action going on,” Hodge said.

During the buildup to the tournament, excitement has been reaching fever pitch. In Argentina, where bank accounts have been frozen since the economy collapsed in December, The New York Times reports that soccer-crazed Argentinians are placing all their hopes on a home victory to lift the gloom. In Great Britain, Prime minister Tony Blair, fearful of the effect of mass absenteeism on the British economy, has urged British industry to allow employees to watch England’s matches at their places of work. In China, the national television network, China Central Television, is expecting World Cup viewing figures in China to exceed the 100 million that watched China clinch their first World Cup qualification in 2001. According to Souleman Soldi, a Senegal fan who goes to matches festooned in the national colors of red, green and yellow, the whole country will be watching when the national team plays World Cup-holders France in the prestigious opening fixture. Such is the passion engendered by soccer around the world, but it is a passion that America has yet to embrace.

USF student Shawn Moore, a soccer enthusiast, said until soccer becomes integrated into normal daily life it will remain on the fringe of American culture.

“When you’re young, you grow up with your dad or your granddad watching football, baseball and basketball. You don’t really see much soccer.” Moore said.

But behind the familiar story of American indifference to soccer, however, there are signs that things are slowly changing. Unlike other nations not traditionally associated with soccer, such as India and Pakistan, whose national sport is cricket, New Zealand (rugby), Canada (ice hockey) and Australia (Australian Rules football and cricket), the United States already has all the trappings of a successful soccer nation. Having qualified for the last four World Cups, the United States soccer team is ranked 13th in the world, just one place shy of England and above several traditional soccer nations such as Sweden and Uruguay. It boasts a professional, albeit a reportedly struggling, soccer league, and, most significantly of all, the game is flourishing at a grassroots level. According to estimates by Nike, approximately 8.5 million young people play soccer on a regular basis.

There is evidence too of soccer’s growing acceptance in the mainstream sports media. For the third consecutive World Cup, every match will be broadcast on national television. For this World Cup, ESPN will broadcast 57 matches live with ABC showing six matches on a tape-delay basis and the World Cup final live. Recently, soccer even penetrated that bastion of American sports, Sports Illustrated, when U.S. soccer star Clint Mathis became only the second soccer player to adorn the cover.

Mac Nwulu, a spokesman for ESPN, said there was evidence of a burgeoning interest in soccer in the United States but that the myriad of choices offered by cable and satellite channels to watch soccer from around in the world inevitably detracted from interest in U.S. soccer.

“We have seen an increase in the interest in the national team. That fan base is out there but you must remember that there is more soccer out there for people to watch,” Nwulu said.

Logan Fleck, head coach of the USF women’s soccer team, said the Internet and the televising of soccer from around the world has increased awareness of international soccer, and, with the existence of a professional league in America, he is optimistic more young athletes would be attracted to soccer.

But, for Fleck, the continuing expansion of youth soccer represents only half the equation required for soccer to become a mainstream sport.

“The good indicators for the United States is that youth soccer has expanded,” Fleck said. “Have we translated them into fans? That’s a different question.”

One student who has made the transition from soccer player to spectator is junior Matt Sufficool, who said he would be watching as much of the World Cup as he could. Sufficool said it was now easier than ever to become involved in soccer.

“I see more kids playing now,” said Sufficool. “There’s more pickup games going on, whereas it used to be that you had to call everybody to set up a game.”

Chris Kaiser, an MBA student said he will be watching the World Cup on tape-delay basis, but he believes that interest in soccer is unlikely to rise above current levels.

“It will never be a TV sport because unless you play it, you can never relate to it,” said Kaiser. “Probably 90 percent of the people that watch football don’t play it, with soccer you’re lucky if 50 percent of the people that play it do watch it.”

Nick Pugliese, deputy sports editor of The Tampa Tribune, said they will be covering the World Cup, but maintained that interest in soccer among The Tribune’s readership is still very much a minority.

“It’s a small percentage of our readership that really care about it,” Pugliese said. “Unlike the Olympics, it’s unlikely that it will be on the front page everyday.”

For soccer-related businesses, the World Cup provides a welcome boost. George Tirado, co-owner of “Soccer Field,” a Tampa-based soccer equipment retail outlet, said each of the last two World Cups had ushered in an increase in sales that continued long after the conclusion of each tournament. However, Tirado said even with the number of people playing soccer increasing every year, he could never envisage soccer rivaling major U.S. sports.

“Soccer in this country is definitely a participation sport only,” Tirado said. “I think even if (the United States) won the World Cup, the impact would still only be short-term because spectator-wise, in this country it’s football, baseball, basketball – that’s just the way it is, and its not going to change.”

Whether there are genuine signs of the beginnings of a love affair with the world’s game or the United States will continue to play hard to get with soccer only time will tell. Certainly, evidence of soccer mania is to be found on campus. Senior Italo Nguyn said he will be definitely watching the World Cup irrespective of the transmission times.

“I will still wake up – I don’t care how late it is,” said Nguyn.

Moore’s commitment to watching the World Cup illustrates that some Americans are as passionate about the World Cup as anyone is.

“I got two VCRs hooked up to two separate TVs, so I can get the games on ESPN and the games on ESPN2,” Moore said.

So, for the next four weeks, if you notice more people than usual fast asleep during class, or if you are woken up in your dorm at 4 a.m. by an ear-splitting cry of “goooal,” try to show a little tolerance. It is not their fault; they just have the “fever.”

Contact Chris O’Donnell at oracleodonnell@yahoo.com