by | Jun 2, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Here we go. Happens every four years. Somewhere on the planet, they are playing the World Cup of soccer. So we in America must get a lecture.

“Why isn’t soccer popular in the U.S.? What’s the matter with you? It’s the biggest sporting event in the world!”

With all due respect, no it isn’t. Because the world, when it comes to sports, is defined by where your world begins and ends.

If you’re in certain Southern states, the world begins and ends with the NASCAR circuit. If you’re in Nebraska or Oklahoma, the world begins and ends with college football. If you’re in Green Bay, you have the Packers and you have the rest of life.

This may explain a recent USA Today poll in which 72 percent of Americans said they were not going to watch ANY of the World Cup — which, by the way, has already started. Not that any of us noticed.

Three out of four Americans couldn’t care less? Does that make us pompous? On the contrary. It suggests we have other things to do.

Soccer may be the most played game on the planet, but the planet includes a lot of countries that don’t have the NFL, the NBA the NHL or major league baseball.

None of those sports is No. 1 in Brazil, France, England or Cameroon. But you don’t see us yelling at them.

The truth about soccer

Let’s dispel certain myths about soccer’s tepid response in America.

First myth: If we were better at it, we’d watch more. True, most Americans don’t enjoy watching futility — which is what our efforts in the World Cup have mostly been. But you know something? We’re great at track and field and swimming — and we don’t watch them, either. The fact is, the sports calendar is jammed in the United States. And there’s a long line of wanna-bes trying to break in.

Second myth: Bringing the World Cup to America will inject us with the soccer bug. Wrong. It was already here, in 1994, remember? Uh . . . you do remember, don’t you? Everyone said soccer would zoom in popularity and fans would mob the stadiums and everyone would be playing blah, blah, blah, and now here it is eight years later and I defy you to even tell me who won.

Third myth: Kids play it, so they’ll grow to watch it. True, soccer is widely played in grade schools. Then again, so is hopscotch.

Fourth myth: We are a nation of immigrants, so it is inevitable soccer will be popular. Come on. America is a melting pot, and when people come here, they more often assimilate to the new than cling to the old. Otherwise, America’s favorite music would be salsa and its favorite author would be Dostoyevsky.

It’s just like art

Now, unlike some American sports journalists, I take no glee in ripping soccer. I happen to think it’s exciting. I like the suspense. I like that a guy could be bleeding all over the field and they never call a time-out. I have no problem with the actual game.

But many Americans do. For them, it’s too slow. Too dull. Not enough scoring. I hear the soccer faithful screaming: “Argh! You just don’t appreciate it!” Perhaps. But the same can be said of French impressionist art, and you can’t force that on people, either.

Did you know that many of the rich superstars in the World Cup don’t even play in their own countries the rest of the year? They sign on with the highest-bidding league, often half a world away. So the World Cup is one of the few chances the natives get to root for their own.

We don’t have that problem in the United States. Brett Favre plays here. Kobe Bryant plays here. Derek Jeter plays here. We see them all year. We see them win championships.

So maybe we don’t need the World Cup the way other countries do. I have long suspected its popularity is rooted in nationalism, anyhow. The British want to stomp the Germans. The Brazilians want to stomp the Argentineans. They all want to stomp the French.

Let them. Why would we want to stomp Cameroon? We don’t even know where it is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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