At the time, I was working with a baseball team in Alaska, doing some broadcasting and website stuff during the day, and trying to enjoy the outdoors and 24 hours of sunlight in my down time. Meanwhile back in the lower 48, everyone was getting caught up with soccer, as our American boys made an unexpected run at the Confederations Cup.
First we advanced out of group play. Then there was victory over the top ranked African side, Egypt in the quarterfinals. Next was the shocker of all shockers, our Yanks, the Americans, defeating world super-power and defending Euro Cup champions Spain. By the time the U.S. got to the final against Brazil, the whole country came down with soccer fever, and not even a 3-2 loss dampened anyone’s spirits. Before the final whistle even blew in the Confederations Cup, everyone had already turned their attention to the World Cup in 2010. On the field America would be ready. Off it, the fans believed we would support our squad with a passion similar to our European and South American friends. That the U.S. was finally ready to be a “soccer country.”
Me, I wasn’t so sure.
You see, I had spent some time in Europe the summer before, right during the heart of the Euro Cup. I saw how an international soccer tournament could shape the moods and emotions of an entire country and to a larger degree, an entire continent. And as nice as the Confederations Cup run was for the Americans, the U.S. still had nothing on our European friends. Not even close.
Truthfully, if there’s one thing I learned during my time in Europe, it’s that international soccer is unlike any sport we have in the United States. Different than college football in the South. Different than Major League Baseball in the Northeast, or the NFL in Pittsburgh, Dallas or Washington D.C. Way different.
In those cases, you’re really only worried about your team, and your team only. Does a Georgia football fan really care what’s going on with the LSU program other than the weekend they play? Are Steelers fans cancelling dinner reservations to watch Ravens or Colts games? In Europe it doesn’t matter if you’re in Italy for a France-Germany game, or the Netherlands for Spain and Portugal. Everyone, man, woman, young, old, rich and poor are in front of a TV, watching every match, even if it means nothing specifically to them.
And when your own country is playing…Forget about it. The entire psychology of a nation can swing with one strike of the ball. During that Euro Cup, it almost seemed like the joy of winning was overtaken by the satisfaction of not losing. To say that European’s eat, breathe and sleep soccer is an understatement. They literally live it. Food just doesn’t take as good and the air doesn’t seem as fresh when your team isn’t doing well. Seriously.
But back to the U.S. We love them. We cheer for them. We support them. But after what I saw this weekend, I came to realize that we’re still not a soccer country. Not even close.
Now before I go any further I want to make it clear that this my complaints aren't about the patriotism displayed the last few weeks, because truthfully, it was excellent. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the States. Not in the Olympics. Not at the World Baseball Classic. Or any previous World Cup. It was truly phenomenal.
Take Saturday for example.
I agreed to meet some buddies out for a few beers to watch the game (First off, this may be my favorite thing about soccer. If I try and watch football or basketball at a bar, I always feel like I’m not totally invested in the game, and am missing something. Not soccer. There’s just enough action to keep you immersed for 90 minutes, but not too much action where you feel like you can’t follow).
Anyway, I got to my buddy’s apartment right around 1pm, and he was ready to rock and roll. I figured we’d hang out for a few minutes, BS and catch up, but as far as he was concerned there was no time to waste. We needed to get out the door and to the bar right away, to make sure we got a good seat for the US-Ghana match. Quite frankly, he wished we had left earlier.
Well as it turns out, my man was right. We got to Buffalo Wild Wings at 1:40 p.m. for the 2:30 start, and there was barely a seat in the house. Families were sitting in booths, their young children with red, white and blue paint smeared across their faces. College aged kids- guys and girls- were lined up around the bar in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey jerseys. Old folks sat in the corner, wanting to be part of the action, but afraid to get too close, for fear that an over served coed might spill a drink on them or something. It really was a scene.
Once the match started, I was even more impressed with the crowd. People were quiet and respectful during the National Anthem, and loud and engaged when play got underway. Everyone had their eyes glued to the TV for the entire 90 minutes and seemed afraid to sneak off to the bathroom until there were stoppages in play (Which needless to say, led to plenty of awkward urinal conversation). The place went silent when Ghana scored a goal less than five minutes in, and erupted when Donovan tied the game at 1-1. Everyone was high-fiving, strangers hugging strangers. At that moment, just like anywhere else on the globe, it didn’t matter who you were, only that you were American.
But as much as I liked the crowd and their enthusiasm during the match, I was just as disappointed when the game was done. This is where my beef with the American soccer fan begins.
Once Ghana went ahead, and the final whistle eventually blew, the place cleared out like it was on fire. No pause to reflect. No upset fans staring into the distance in disbelief. Just one big exodus out the door.
My buddy and I stuck around to hear some postgame commentary, only disappointingly, the bar turned off the coverage and put on their awful XM radio mix. “Paparazzi,” by Lady Gaga wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear after a tough loss.
More important than any one action though, was just the general attitude of the fans. It didn’t seem like anyone was all that upset, everyone seemingly more concerned with beating traffic or catching a few late afternoon holes of golf. And that kinda bummed me out.
Now to a very small degree I understand that attitude. The stated goal of the U.S. team all along was to get out of group play, and we did that. We even won our group for the first time since 1930, which is certainly something to be proud of.
But at the same time, as nice as winning Group C was, there’s no doubt that the rules of the game changed once the draw played itself out. The U.S. got a very manageable Ghana side in the round of 16, the winner facing off against Uruguay or South Korea in the next match. The U.S. will NEVER have an easier path to a World Cup semifinal. Ever.
And that’s what I’m personally upset about. We didn’t lose to Germany, Spain, Brazil or Argentina. Hell, we didn’t even lose to England or France. Those losses would have been acceptable. Those losses would have been a step in the right direction.
Nope, we lost to Ghana. We lost to a team that’s ranked 32nd in the world by FIFA, and sixth amongst all African countries (By comparison, the U.S. is ranked 14th in the world). We lost to a team which scored just two goals in their first three games, and only advanced to the knockout round because of goal differential. Hell, we lost to a team whose only world class player- forward Michael Essien- didn’t even play in this tournament because of a knee injury. Why was everyone so ok with this loss?
Which is what really upsets me the most.
The U.S. was the better team by any tangible measurement coming into Saturday’s match (world ranking, overall skill), and proved it on the pitch (field) by dominating for big chunks of the game. Think about that: We lost to a team that we were better than and that we outplayed. Yet everyone’s collective reaction was, “Well we weren’t going to win the tournament anyway. Who wants to play some XBox?” Why aren’t more people upset?
As I got back in front of a TV later Saturday afternoon and the postgame coverage continued, I kept hearing goofy, Little-League-ish quotes about how proud everyone was of the team, and how we’ll be back in 2014. Umm, what about 2010? Why wasn’t anyone talking about the fact that we lost to a team we should’ve beaten? Only broadcaster Alexi Lalas told the truth that I wanted to hear: Cut it how you’d like. But whether Saturday’s match was in group play, the round of 16 or the World Cup final, it was a game the U.S. should have won. American’s should be disappointed in the loss.
Let’s go ahead and look at this from a different angle. Would Americans ever- in a million years- be ok with our Olympic hockey team losing as a favorite to Slovakia? How would we feel if the U.S. lost in the World Baseball Classic to Taiwan? Hell, the U.S. lost one Olympic Gold Medal in basketball (2004 in Athens), and we spent tens of millions of dollars to ensure that it never happened again. Yet we treat our soccer players with kid gloves.
Now I’m sure right now some of you are probably thinking, “Aaron, we have the best baseball and basketball players in the world. Comparing our soccer players to them is comparing apples and oranges.” Maybe to a degree you’re right.
But as my buddy Chris intelligently pointed out, if the U.S. wants to become a world power in soccer, don’t we need to start treating our players like we do in every other sport? Again, we didn’t lose to Argentina or Germany. We lost to freakin’ Ghana!!! If it’s not ok for Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant to lose to an inferior team on the world’s stage, why is ok for Landon Donovan and Tim Howard to do the same? Would any- even mid-level- country in Europe or South America react Saturday’s loss the way we did? Because I don’t think they would.
Look, my point here isn’t to bash American fans, please understand that. I’m proud of this team, and my fellow citizens.
All I’m saying is that if you think that the people in this country care as much about soccer as those in Argentina, France, Spain, Brazil or England, well I’m sorry you’re wrong. Don’t let one day at a crowded sports bar fool you, it’s not even close. Right now we’ve simply got too many other sports (MLB, NBA, NFL) and distractions (golf, the beach, whatever) that diverts our attention away from soccer other than once every four years.
If we lose in the World Cup, is anyone really that upset? We might be bummed for a minute, but then we flip on baseball or start getting ready for football season. You know how Italians are reacting to their elimination from South Africa right now? By going to work disgruntled, and counting down the days, hours and minutes to the next World Cup.
Let me close with a quick final story from my summer in Europe in 2008.
When my buddies and I were checking into to a hostel in Barcelona, we met a group of French girls. They were cute and friendly, and seemed like they’d be fun to hang out with. Apparently they took a liking to us too, and invited us out to watch the French play Italy that night in the Euro Cup.
We obviously said yes, but as the day went on, I got disconnected from buddies. Being in Europe, we had no way to get in touch, so as match time grew near, I had a choice to either head out with the girls (And a new friend I’d made along the way) or wait up for them. I ended up hitting the town, figuring unless my friends were dead, they’d be pissed at me for staying in.
Once we met up at a bar, those same eager, funny, outgoing girls were all of a sudden dead set on the TV. Nobody talked. There was no casual conversation. Quite frankly it was a little weird.
And as the match went on, it was clear the French weren’t going to win. They lost 1-0 to Italy and were officially eliminated from the tournament.
As we left the bar, I asked one of the girls what we were doing next. She looked at her friends and chatted with them quickly in French. Eventually they decided to head home. Maybe they just didn’t like me, I don’t know, but they just seemed too upset to be out the rest of the night.
And that’s the difference between the U.S. and much of the rest of the world right now.
We were all upset about the loss Saturday, myself included. But did the loss totally ruin the rest of your night? Or your weekend? Are you still devasted by it now, 48 hours later?
The U.S. may be a soccer country some day. But we’re not there yet.