Well, it seems that, yet again, we have a little time on our hands here. Once again, the rhythm of the season is broken up, ostensibly to accommodate the beginning of the qualifying rounds for international tournaments, although since Chivas and the Sounders played yesterday. Basically, there’s nothing going on in the league until Wednesday, and we don’t play again until the weekend.
Usually, I am not a big fan of these mid-season breaks. I just don’t have that much interest in the international side of football and, in any case, they break the flow of the season at times that quite often make no sense at all. Those of you who follow the European leagues will recall that there was a round of international matches the week before the opening of the English Premier League season. I believe that the leagues in southern Europe had already started up at that point, although now that BeIN Sports has bought up the rights to pretty much everything aside from the EPL I have very little idea about what is going on down there.
Now, three weeks later, we are having another break for a round of international fixtures, some of which are actual qualifiers, so of which are friendlies. I’m sure that I’ve nattered on about this topic before, but since we have a little free time here, allow me to reiterate that in the question of club versus country I come down very strongly on the club side. I know for a fact that I’ve talked in previous columns about the fact that a large proportion of fans of the game in the United States came to it via the marketing of the international wing of the sport. The staging of the World Cup here in 1994 had a salutary effect on interest in the game here, although claims that it was going to make the game in this country were, as they always are, totally overblown.
Ok, allow me to his pause on my rant here…so that I can start ranting about another topic. It seems to me that every time something really good happens to the USMNT, the pundits on the major sports networks go a bit crazy. I know that most of them really dislike football (the real kind) and, as an aside, it’s always really funny for me to see them forced to appear to take some interest in it every time the World Cup rolls around. For a lot of them, addicted as they are to seeing guys trussed up in gladiatorial armor and extremely tight little pants bashing each other in the head in between long bouts of standing around doing nothing, what the world calls football is both boring and a little threatening. How else to explain their need to take to the airwaves after events like the U.S. beating Spain in the Confederations Cup in 2009 to assure us that this isn’t the event that will take soccer in this country to some new plateau? I watched Jim Rome (who I think is a first class dope in any case) do this particular dance. After a brief pat on the back to the U.S. team (who had after all just beat the top ranked international team in the world) he went on to expatiate for about five minutes about how this wasn’t some sort of turning point for the game in this country.
This sort of thing really makes me want to scream. Attention Jim Rome (and others obsessed with the “traditional” American sports culture): football in the country is not going to be made or broken by one event. It will not be a matter of a tournament, nor a big win, nor any one particular thing. No one among the supporters of the game in this country thinks that it will. What I think these people are afraid of is that the long term growth of the game (and who can argue that it’s not growing) will leech interest away from other sports. Well, there’s that and there is their underlying xenophobia which moves them to disrespect anything that they perceive as alien, but that’s another issue. I don’t know if they are right to be worried, but I suspect that it is really a non-issue.
I’ve had a lot of conversations both with friends and family members in the North America who are fans of the traditional sports culture here, and with people that I know from Europe, in which it is averred that soccer will never really make it in the U.S. I always have the same answer. Look, there are 300+ million of us in this country. We’re mad for sports. More importantly, we know how to do it. We have a lot of infrastructure here devoted to promoting the acquisition of skills, and to the acquisition of knowledge about how it’s done. We’re going to figure this out too. We’re figuring it out now. It’s not going to be a situation where one event happens and a massive lightbulb goes on over the collective head of the country. It never is with sports. None of the major traditional sports in this country developed that way, and soccer won’t either. There will be some setbacks (like blowing an early lead away to Jamaica or not qualifying for the Olympics), but to focus on that stuff is to miss the big picture. We now have a viable domestic league in this country, one with a business plan that is not completely loopy (thus differentiating itself from the NASL). There are kids now in this country who know that you can make a living in the game without having to pull up stakes and move to Europe (as John O’Brien did in the 1990s). We are getting it right, but it will take time.
I also have to laugh when European friends discount the quality of the game in this country. To them I say, as Satchel Paige warned, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”