Slow and Steady Winning The Race

The US losing the World Cup bid in 2022 to Qatar sucks.  It really does.  I have actively followed the bidding process for the better part of a year, checked in on regular updates, and even watched the full final US presentation yesterday just to make sure that I knew they were going to win.  How could they not?  They boasted well over 18 host cities, all with relatively new-ish football stadiums that averaged 67,000 seat capacity, all currently built and ready to hold the event tomorrow if need be (let alone in 12 years).  We have tons of hotel and pleasure accommodations at each site that also doubles as tourist attractions during off days as well as a well-tested infrastructure that worked so well that during our hosting of the 1994 World Cup that it is still the most profitable and most heavily-attended event they have ever put on.

What more could they need?  (Well, outside of heavy bribes, a fondness for “most populated cities” which are roughly the size of Dover, NH, stadiums built like boats that are mainly accessible by boats, swealtering heat, heavy bribes…)  And while I would have loved to attend a World Cup by taking the same trip needed to see a Giants preseason game, it’s not to be.  Congrats, Qatar.  Let’s all move on, right?  Oh, wait, so now US Soccer as a whole will falter?  There is a prevailing idea that without hosting another World Cup, less than 30 years after hosting our first ever, all of our progress up until now is all for naught.  And that, of course, is total bullshit.There are certain indisputable facts that lead one to think of how vital hosting the 2022 World Cup would be to bringing soccer “into the mainstream” in America.  The easiest to point at is how America responded after the 1994 World Cup and how that has catapulted our Men’s National Team up the FIFA rankings ever since.  Landon Donovan even cited his attendance at a WC match in Los Angeles as the catalyst to start his soccer career, eventually leading to The Goal Against Algeria.  And yes, that ripple can still be felt reverberating today as the ratings continue to climb for MLS and the World Cup.  All of that is well and good, but what necessitates needing another big rock to form more ripples?

The answer is more than likely this:  so that soccer can “finally cross over into the mainstream in the United States.”  What does that term even mean?  Is it TV ratings, because they’re on the incline.  Is it attendance at Major League Soccer matches, cause they’re also on the incline.  Would it be the number of exhibitions held on US soil each year, be it between national teams or clubs, because…well you get the idea.

There is a crisis over soccer in this country because the people in charge who drive the coverage have decided that there is.  And who runs this mechanism?  Older people.  Folks in their 50s and above.  The same people whose only experience with the sport was as a passing fad; their care waxed and waned on the NASL, which was more circus than stable athletic league.  Why would they think it could catch on again?  They saw the past, noted what happened, and have extrapolated it over what will surely happen again.  If they aren’t impressed, well, who the hell would be?

We’re fixated on this idea of bringing the sport to the mainstream, which essentially means, “make it popular to people who don’t like soccer.”  And that, friends, is impossible, especially when we view this not as a culture but as a product, a commodity.  We look at the sport like it’s a band in the 1990s:  if we give it enough exposure and shove it down enough people’s throats, eventually they’re going to just give in and enjoy it.  Just because it worked for Jewel doesn’t mean that it will work in the future.  But that’s not how these things work.

The idea is that if it worked once (1994) and it brought dividends (the quarterfinal run in 2002 that everyone seems to have forgotten about, the ’05 Gold Cup final, ’09 Confederations Cup, the Landycakes goal in 2010) that if we gets another World Cup, hell, 20 years down the line we’ll have Messis just falling out of our asses.  It’s simple math.  That one event will save us, because it was a big event before, and people cared about it then.  Without that event, well, here comes the hand wringing.

And to that, I counter:  what person under the age of 35 wasn’t totally aware of the World Cup?  That is the direct effect of hosting the ’94 Cup.  We have gradually cultivated a base for soccer in this country.  I remember playing the sport as a kid, being coached by a guy whose only experience with the beautiful game was from a book he read called “How To Coach Soccer To Kids.”  He was the perennial coach for six years during my youth, full of talented, athletic kids who eventually went on to win league titles in football and basketball in our high school.  Instead of harnessing this talent towards soccer, it was left in the hands of my Dad, who volunteered because someone had to, not because he could teach kids the sport.

Growing up, we didn’t have access to games from Europe or have an idea of just how beautiful the beautiful game truly is.  Over the last fifteen years, I now know exactly what I missed.  I know that I should’ve played soccer all throughout high school, that I blew an opportunity, and I know that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.  I am now a passionate and devoted follower of LiverpoolFC in England, and will be til the day I die.  Much in the way that Bill Simmons is trying to keep his kids from being Laker fans, you should be damn sure that my kids will be born right into a red Liverpool kit, that they’ll be sung “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as they go to bed.  It’s in me; it will be in them.  And it will be like this, in some way, shape, or form, all across America over the next decade.

So why fret over 2022 when the results are still not in from 1994.  Sure, it’d be more fun if it were quicker, but this will last; that’s the double-edged sword with gradual, organic change.  The litmus test of how successful it will be will come only after the kids that grew up fully cognizant of the sport have their own kids.  Our Under-20 and Under-17 teams continue to improve and continue to battle against the world’s best…but not routinely.  Not in a dominant fashion.  It’s just not ingrained in us yet.  But we’re getting there.  By the time 2022 rolls around, and FIFA is desperate to continue growing the game, they’ll look at the US and see all of the dedicated followers and think, “good, they don’t need it.”

Which will make it all the sweeter when Qatarians have this same argument in 2046 when they don’t get the bid in 2068 while the US is sitting on a shiny gold trophy or two.  The best punch lines come with time.

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