Friday, July 2, 2010

The U.S. Loss and What It Means for American Soccer

So the US lost. Not badly, not undeservedly, we just lost. We didn't show up to play, gave up two fluke goals, and squandered a very winnable game and one of the best chances America has ever had to go deep in a World Cup. Calling the US game a heartbreaker would be disingenuous, though, in light of what happened to Ghana in their next match. I never thought I would feel sorry for Ghana after all the shit luck and time-wasting hijinks they pulled in extra time, but their exit had to have been the most painful of any team in the Cup so far. Still, I'm not disappointed with America's performance overall. We overachieved against England, struggled against Slovenia, had some gutsy play by Donovan, Dempsey, and Howard, and ultimately probably got just as far as anyone would have predicted before the Cup.

I watched the US-Ghana game from a pub in Denmark. Most of the crowd was pulling for Ghana because of the whole "they're the last team from Africa at an African World Cup" thing. This is some BS logic, and really irked me when the Danes employed it since most of them were actually for the Netherlands after Denmark had lost two days earlier, and the US game was meaningless to them. Seriously, either pick a side or don't, but cheer hard and don't use some half-assed African solidarity argument to tell me why you're rooting against America. Anyway, the result of the game, combined with the stress of extra time, combined with the beer, combined with the fact that I literally got one hour of sleep made me an extremely tired and unhappy camper for our flight to Madrid the next morning. Our flight was delayed twice for a total of two hours, most of which I spent napping. When it was time to finally board, our plane had no air circulation and was about 75˚F, which promptly sent me into a flop-sweat that made sleep impossible. I spent most of the flight in the kind of half-conscious state that you get into when you're really tired in class--heavy eyelids, falling asleep forward and then snapping your head back up, half-dreaming, etc. In short, not a terribly enjoyable experience. I was happy when we finally got to our hostel in Madrid and took a siesta.

Before describing my experience in Madrid, I'd like to spend the rest of this post ranting about American sportswriters and their utter failure to cover the World Cup in an intelligent way. I didn't realize this when I was in Europe, but the same tired "is soccer catching on in the US?" argument is currently being rehashed in the American sports media. For example, I Googled "US-Ghana" to find the date of the match. One of the first results I got was an article in the Wall Street Journal by Allen Barra, who argues that

"Soccer is the world's most popular sport, but rather in the same way that one might call rice the world's most popular food. In many places, it's all that's available or that most people can afford. In fact, in terms of soccer supremacy, we may as well call the World Cup the Western Europe-South American Cup, since the only seven countries ever to win it have been from those two continents."

Really? This is the stupidest thing I've seen in print since I read Glenn Beck's Common Sense. Barra argues that soccer is popular among countries with no other athletic options, and then, in the next sentence, that it is dominated by Western European teams. Think about that for a second. You don't think the highly developed nations of Western Europe--which have widespread access to international TV, local development leagues for the NFL and NBA, youth leagues for a huge variety of sports (including obscure stuff like handball that Europeans really love but Americans have barely heard of), and some of the greatest Olympic athletes in history--you don't think that they have options? For that matter, what about well-developed Argentina, which sent guys like Manu Ginobili to the NBA and (famously) beat the US in basketball during the 2004 Olympics? People in these countries have options, and they choose to play soccer because it is awesome. Slowly, Americans are learning that the sport is awesome, too, and we have slowly begun to develop and export soccer talent. Guys like Barra, who proclaim that America will never be dominant in soccer as long as its best athletes go to the NBA or NFL, miss the point: we can win at more than one thing at a time. Look at the Olympics, where hundreds of our athletes won medals in extremely diverse fields. We had the best medley relay team in the world, but it didn't stop us from also winning basketball, track and field events, etc. Saying that you can't do something is the first step toward not doing it, and we need to ask more of the USMNT in the future, not less.

Barra's negativity toward soccer is echoed by people like Rick Reilly, who used his column space last week to write a ridiculous screed against the vuvuzelas (the horns that are always blowing in the background of Cup matches). What I found interesting was that the biggest thing Reilly--a perpetual complainer if there ever was one--found to bitch about during this World Cup was the horn that fans were using. Sure, it was a crappy recycled column idea from a fading writer--a slightly elevated version of a "SOCCER SUCKS LOLZ" comment on YouTube--but even in 800+ words, Reilly couldn't find any good jokes about the World Cup. Now, this could partially be attributed to the fact that Reilly is fading as a writer (90% of his columns these days are a mashed-up series of one-liner jokes, maybe 5% of which are actually funny), but it may also have something to do with it no longer being cool or edgy for American sports journalists to hate on soccer like they did in the 1990s.

Like it or not, World Cup soccer is awesome and it's here to stay. You might as well enjoy it like many Americans have started to do--at least, if ESPN/ABC's outstanding ratings show anything. For a good example of a sportswriter who embraces this attitude and is actually in touch with the American public, check out Bill Simmons and his take on the World Cup thus far. I'll recap my time in Spain tomorrow; right now, I'm going to bed.

No comments:

Post a Comment