Finding Our Place in the World (Cup)
Most of my countrymen—myself included—can’t muster an interest in soccer beyond the World Cup’s month-long frenzy, one of the rare times when the entire world is linked by a sporting event. The thrill never lasts because soccer can’t continue its momentum within our borders. We have no homegrown soccer supernova, just ones we temporarily adopt (e.g., David Beckham). The product here doesn’t compare to what’s in Europe, where soccer is played at the highest level. And our national team has never come close to winning the World Cup. Once the U.S. bows out, our attention returns to the homegrown sports we dominate: baseball, football, competitive eating.
I’m still curious about soccer’s status in the United States. We know millions of kids play the sport, but has that boosted its profile? Are we any good? Filip Bondy’s Chasing the Game: America and the Quest for the World Cup seemed like a good starting point, especially since I had no idea America was actually pursuing the World Cup. My doubts were confirmed when I read the following from Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation: “Are we going to win the World Cup in 2010? Of course not.”
Bondy, a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, does a nice job profiling the team’s players and their path to South Africa. The book’s real value lies in how Bondy shows soccer’s slow, steady assimilation into an already crowded sports culture. It’s a reminder that every sport has an infancy period. Baseball, football, and basketball didn’t arrive to the scene as profitable behemoths. “All of my dreams end the same way, with us winning the World Cup,” Gulati says. “But if we talk about when that will happen, it starts getting fuzzy.”
Soccer’s presence in America, according to Bondy, can be traced back to 1862 in Boston, where “some form of the sport” was first played. Though embraced by the working class, soccer had trouble on the organized level; colleges opted for America’s version of football. The U.S. did play in the first World Cup in 1930, but 1934’s awful showing and dodgy political relations kept U.S. Soccer away from international competition from 1934 until 1947.
America is still catching up to the rest of the world, and Bondy finds the people closing the gap. Two stuck with me. Gulati, a native of India, has devoted himself to the cause of U.S. Soccer for nearly 30 years. He was instrumental in renovating the national team program, bringing the 1994 World Cup to the United States, and in forming Major League Soccer. Though an economics lecturer at Columbia, Gulati’s priorities are clearly as U.S. Soccer’s non-salaried president. “A flat screen TV above his desk was tuned to the latest stock prices, a single concession to Gulati's real-life job . . . the place brimmed with [soccer] memorabilia,” Bondy observes. Before officially taking over the national team in 2007, coach Bob Bradley was so in love with soccer that he coached at Princeton University and two New Jersey amateur clubs. It didn’t satisfy the desire.
Challenges persist in America mastering the game. Judging talent, whether its prodigies or additions to a team, is a vexing process. The United States has yet to produce a soccer super-talent, and the chances are that it won’t happen anytime soon since, according to Bondy, “substantial incentives” aren't there for talented athletes. The goal for American players is to grab major minutes on an international club, which seems at odds with building popularity in America. That is, unless an American has ". . . a breakthrough on a real team, in a real league,” clarifies Jay Berhalter, head of youth development for U.S. Soccer. “To start for Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona. To start for Arsenal at midfield would be a real accomplishment. We have the population to drive it. It just takes longer.”
As Bondy points out, many American players have made teams throughout Europe, and making the national team is a reward for overseas accomplishments. The same pattern happens in most countries. The national team—which has its own legion of passionate followers called Sam’s Army—has appeared in six straight World Cups; the U.S. is recognized as one of the world’s top 15 teams. Berhalter later tells Bondy that it’s not a matter of if America can produce a soccer superstar, but when.
Most importantly, people care about the sport and its future, as Bradley expressed to The Boston Globe after the 2006 funeral of assistant U.S. coach Glenn “Mooch” Myernick.
“You couldn’t have had a better gathering of soccer people,” he told the newspaper. “. . . . It makes you feel there are roots in this country, there is history, and we don’t always do the best job of putting that story out there. The story involves the coaches, players, administrators, referees, writers, all people who have been hooked by the game. When everyone is together, even for a very, very sad reason, something happens and it makes you realize why you are still doing it.”
Whether that’s enough to have soccer compete with America’s other team sports is a subject for another book, one that’s not guaranteed to have a happy ending.
Books mentioned in this column: