A loud roar erupted outside my apartment window. Across the city, jubilant fans poured into the streets to celebrate the victory. It was spring 2002, and I was studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain, a university town west of Madrid.
Soccer powerhouse Real Madrid had just beaten Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen to win Europe’s Champions League Cup. Real’s triumph was secured by a brilliant second-half Zinedine Zidane goal, a miraculous volleying left-footed bullet from the edge of the penalty area.
As an American, my devotion to Real was only as deep as my four months in Spain could engender. But it was easy to get caught up in the revelry.
For decades, Americans have been hearing about soccer’s imminent arrival as a top-tier spectator sport. But Brazilian star Pelé in the early 1980s and Britain’s David Beckham more recently failed to catapult soccer into the mainstream.
And despite drawing TV ratings in America 50 percent higher than in 2006, this year’s World Cup won’t prompt as many Americans to suddenly embrace the game with anything like the passion of my Spanish neighbors in 2002.
But, like it or loathe it, soccer’s eventual rise may be inevitable.
Consider this: America’s loudest complaint about soccer is that there’s not enough scoring. The World Cup’s first round produced an average of just over two goals a game. The scarcity of goals makes draws common (nearly a third of first-round games ended in tie scores).
Not that the alternative – the penalty shootout – is much better. In a penalty shootout, each team selects five players to alternately attempt to kick the ball past the goalie at pointblank range. It is soccer’s equivalent to deciding the NBA finals with a free-throw shooting contest or settling the Super Bowl by holding a field-goal kicking contest.
At a deeper level, many Americans – especially conservatives – resent having soccer foisted upon them. Glenn Beck rants, “We don’t want the Word Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.” The late Jack Kemp even opposed a congressional resolution supporting US efforts to host the 1994 World Cup, stating, “a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist [sport].”
But soccer has plenty to offer Americans of all political stripes. For one, when you take in a soccer match, though goals may be scarce, you’ll be watching 90 minutes of almost nonstop action (not commercials!).
Let’s compare that with America’s favorite spectator sport, professional football. According to a Wall Street Journal study, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL games is less than 11 minutes. The remainder of the 174 minutes that make-up a typical broadcast are filled with images of players huddling and milling around, images of coaches and referees and, of course, commercials.
In addition, many soccer analysts believe that a soccer-loving America would, as President Obama might say, kick ass.
Notwithstanding that America has exited the last two World Cups by losing to Ghana, we already have one of the world’s top teams. (It surprised few experts that America won its first round group this year.)
Now imagine if our top athletes – instead of playing football, baseball, and basketball – grew up aspiring to be world-class soccer stars, as kids from most other countries do. We’d be contenders every World Cup.
For conservative hold-outs, soccer may be the most capitalist game going. In most American sports leagues, failure is rewarded as the worst teams get the best shots at the top draft picks, and most leagues have revenue sharing and salary caps to spread the wealth around.
In contrast, the free market reins in most European soccer leagues. Teams that finish last must move to a lower division the following year, while the best of the lower divisions move up. It’s the ultimate meritocracy.
In the end, soccer’s rise may be inevitable. According to Census Bureau projections, by 2050 Hispanic Americans’ share of the population will double to 30 percent. Along with millions of other immigrants, Hispanic newcomers will embrace American sports. But they’ll also retain their love of soccer.
As a signal of our demographic shift, three players on the US men’s soccer team’s 23-man World Cup roster have Hispanic surnames. But 12 of 36 boys in the under-15 US player pool have Hispanic surnames.
Also, while the World Cup is a once-every-four-years experience, increasing numbers of Americans are receiving more than a glimpse of soccer through work and study abroad programs. American expats have more time and incentive to get to know the soccer teams of their adopted home countries.
According to a recent report by Open Doors, a record 262,000 American students studied abroad in 2007 and 2008, a 400 percent increase from two decades earlier. Most of the top study abroad in countries like Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Mexico, and Germany, which go gaga for soccer.
America’s ambivalence toward soccer probably has less to do with politics or lack of scoring than with our already saturated sports market. But we are a sports-loving nation. And as our exposure to soccer continues, I believe we’ll find room for one more sport to love.