Thursday, March 10, 2011

USA: The Sleeping Giant of Association Football

 2010 World Cup - Shine 2010
Back in the UK there exists a bullish viewpoint that Americans "don't know anything about football" and that, because they didn't invent the sport, they show very little interest in it. With equal fervour, whenever the subject comes up, your average British football fanatic will passionately defend his right to call the sport by its widely used name, while admonishing Americans for trying to label it "soccer." Explaining to a Brit that "soccer" derives from the word "Association" (as in Association Football) and that it originated in England itself is often a dizzying experience.

But the truth is, whatever you call it, American interest in the sport is growing - at least here in Indiana.


I am reminded of this every time I order a hot chocolate from Starbucks, whose baristas - acknowledging my Manchester United shirt - always indulge me in the week's gossip from the Barclays Premiership. In fact, today I made the mistake of asking for a refill (of tap water, you understand) from a Liverpool-supporting barista, who proceeded to joke that he would only refill it out of sympathy, following United's 3-1 defeat at Anfield. "Yes, but at least we're fighting for the title," I quipped.

More all-encompassing still is the football experience provided by some of the "authentic" British pubs that have emerged in and around Indianapolis. One that springs to mind is the Chatham Tap, which, while lacking its suggested authenticity, is a solid source of football, beer and fish and chips. My refusal to invest in a digital TV box makes places like this an absolute must for the big games, and there's something to be said for being surrounded by Americans wearing the shirt of their favourite team.

It is not entirely uncommon, either, to spot a football jersey while navigating your way around a college campus or a city parkway, such is the increasing pride that a small percentage of Hoosiers have in the wonderful sport.

Of course, however, it is one thing to be a spectator of football, but another criticism - if you will - that is leveled at the United States is its reluctance to actually play the game. This viewpoint is not without good reason, such has been its failure - as the world's third most populace nation - to succeed at competitions like the World Cup (to an even greater extent, the same is true of both China and India - the two most highly populated nations). And while Major League Soccer (MLS) has boasted stars like David Beckham and Thierry Henry, home-grown footballers (with some exceptions) have not had anywhere near the same success on the world stage as those from the other half of the Americas.

But is all this slowly changing? In a word, yes. Here in Indiana - even in a smaller area like Anderson - the sight of goal posts in parks and fields is becoming an ever increasing occurrence. Just the mere image of a traditional truncated icosahedron football (thank you Wikipedia) is often projected as the symbol of sports as a whole, while last year's World Cup (and the United States' relatively triumphant progression through it) has helped to raise the profile of the sport. 

Perhaps the biggest key to the growth of American soccer (so as to make it distinct from American Football) is the Mexican influence. Mexicans - a people whose influx into the United States is well documented - are very passionate about their football - something that is abundantly clear every time I order food at Qdoba. While wrapping my steak burrito, the servers constantly gage my opinion on Manchester United's Mexican striker Javier Hernandez. Pride glows on their faces when I report that without Hernandez, United would not be top of the league.

In general terms, Mexicans' knowledge of football is equal to their on-field application of it.  Indeed, I recall a fine summer's day in 2009 when myself, my brother-in-law and a group of his friends got torn to pieces in a 5-a-side encounter against a team comprising of, well, just two Mexicans. As an Englishman, I am still considerably bitter about that day.

So in short, there are multiple factors pointing toward a grand evolution of professional football in the United States. As I have said repeatedly, I would be heavily surprised if the country's national team did not succeed in one day lifting the FIFA World Cup. This might sound like a completely unattainable goal based on the current FIFA World Rankings, but, as we say back in England, "football is a funny game."

Whether you call it "football", "soccer", "fußball" or "fútbol," you cannot help but acknowledge the sport's global importance and unwavering ability to bring people together. I like to think that US citizens - whether as players or enthusiasts - are themselves a large part of this family. How long, I wonder, before they become the head of it?  

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2 comments:

Anthony said...

I'm glad that I'm not the only Brit who comments (nay, knows about) the Oxford "-er"!

On a serious note, I've found that a lot of my friends over here are into the "beautiful game". Shame that I'm more of a rugger man...

Laurence Brown said...

Ah, then look out for an upcoming post comparing rugby and American football!

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