World Cup Fever

I’m a baseball fan. Let me clarify. I’m a baseball fanatic. I root for the Yankees, a quality which endears me to few, but not because I like to win. I really like to win, actually, but I root for the Yankees because I rediscovered my love for baseball in Yankee stadium after a long and bitter divorce with the sport. I grew up a Phillies fan, listening to games on the radio with my dad and traveling to old  Veterans Stadium once a year to get a first-hand look at the grass. When  Major League Baseball struck in August of 1994 I was so angry I stopped following it. Until, that is, I made the happy mistake of moving to New York. New York is a baseball town, and I couldn’t live there long without absorbing a little of the old game in some way. Soon enough, I found myself sitting four rows behind Yankee dugout, in a stadium that even Yankee-haters must agree is a shrine to the sport. A shrine they tore down, but whatever. Now, I watch some part of almost every game in the season, and in baseball that’s saying something. Baseball is a part of who I am, and I have a lifelong relationship with it. I don’t know any other Americans who feel the same way about soccer.

World Cup Fever 3

How could I? I’m almost twice as old as Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1993 as part of the successful effort to lure the 1994 World Cup to the United States. Soccer is the fresh-faced new kid on the block, when it comes to national sports. It can’t possibly have the kind of deep emotional ties to the American psyche the way that baseball and, say, college football do. I’m not saying soccer fanatics don’t exist here. The United States is filled with many cultures and many races, and since almost every other country in the world has a soccer obsession, a few are bound to have brought theirs along. It’s just that we don’t really grow soccer fans here at home. Not yet, anyway.

FIFA awarded that 1994 World Cup to the United States largely because they hoped that holding the event here would increase soccer’s popularity in the U.S., and all indications point to success on their part. Maybe you’ve noticed? The World Cup seems to be on everyone’s lips these days, including mine. Maybe FIFA created a generation of soccer-loving children in ’94, maybe we’re developing a national global awareness brought on by worldwide financial collapse, or perhaps it’s because ESPN and a host of advertisers sold us on the thing. ESPN “poured more money into its World Cup marketing campaign,” according to Sean Gregory in Time, “than it had for any other single event in the network’s history.” Many big-time American brands, including Budweiser and Nike, also fielded soccer related ads.

Regardless of origin, this new found soccer obsession has led to record viewership for this World Cup. 17.1 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. vs. England match, which was more than turned out to watch games 1-6 of the NBA finals. The United States’ loss to Ghana last week garnered 19.4 million viewers here, and while we were crying about that, the Mexico vs. Argentina match on Univision became the most-watched show in U.S. Spanish-speaking network history. I know I watched the U.S. vs. Algeria game on Univision, because the English version wouldn’t work online. It was more fun anyway. They just don’t know how to yell “Gggggooooooaaaaalllll!!!” on ESPN and ABC.

World Cup Fever 2
All smiles: Soccer brings joy to millions around the world, and the U.S. is only just catching on.

Speaking of which, I’ve been doing a little yelling myself these days. I’ve got the World Cup fever bad, I’m telling you. When the U.S. scored against Algeria, I ran around the Birmingham Weekly offices screaming with my arms raised, not because I knew it was the thing to do, but because soccer is such an unbelievably nerve-wracking game that I had to relieve the tension. It’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen, knowing that if you walk away for even a second you might miss the only part of the game that matters. This is at the same time almost unbearable and incredibly alluring. I can see how people might say soccer is boring, that nothing happens. But it’s the possibility of something happening that makes all that nothing so compelling.

I also find the idea of participating in such a massive global event appealing. I remember when Greece won the  2004 European Football Championship, because I was living in one of the largest Greek communities outside of Greece at the time and the entire neighborhood shut down during the game and then exploded afterward in a tumultuous and impromptu parade that lasted for twelve hours. You would never see that happen after an Olympic victory, but like the Olympics, the World Cup is an event that unites the Earth together in a common experience. It levels the playing field, so that a tiny country like Ghana can beat a gargantuan like the U.S. using only their athletic ability (and I must say, their astounding ability to stall). My wife jokingly suggested that we should use the World Cup to settle our grievances with other countries bloodlessly, instead of warring endlessly with them. If only such a scenario were possible! Wouldn’t it be a gas to see national boundaries decided with penalty kicks?

Unfortunately, we’re out of contention now, and the easy thing to do would be to turn away in disinterest and go back to watching baseball. The Yanks are leading the division (barely) and are about to head into the All-Star break, and I have to say I do miss the crack of the bat and the drone of the announcer as I nod off into a nap. But it would be the wrong thing to do. Just because we’re not in the picture anymore doesn’t mean the World Cup doesn’t have plenty of excitement to offer.

World Cup Fever 1
Field of dollars: Record spending on marketing for the World Cup has produced record viewership in the United States.

As of the writing of this piece, one semifinal match between Germany and Spain remains, and the winner will play The Netherlands in the final. The semi-final is a revenge opportunity for Germany, whose team still contains 19 members of the squad that lost to Spain in the final of the  2008 European Football Championship. These two teams have met in the World Cup three times, and Germany holds all the wins (with one tie). Whomever the victor, I suggest you pick one of the two finalists and root for them as if they were your alma mater. I’m pulling for The Netherlands because I spent my honeymoon in Amsterdam, and your reasons for choosing a team can be equally as irrelevant. The important thing is to choose, and then to watch.

Be a team player, and wish another country well. One would only hope that other nations would do the same for us if we ever make it to a World Cup final.

Now, perhaps you have a magnificent home theatre with one of those new-fangled 3D televisions, and if you do, by all means stay home. The rest of you should head out to one of the many World Cup viewing parties that will be happening around our city. I can’t think of a better way to cope with your new World Cup fever than by surrounding yourself with other like-minded individuals. Personally, I’m headed for Sloss Furnaces, where event coordinators expect over a thousand people to be in attendance to watch the final on a 16’ x 12’ LED screen accompanied with live music and other activities. Tickets are a meager $3 and all proceeds benefit the American Red Cross. Oh yeah, and there will be food and beverages for sale as well.

I’ll never stop loving baseball, I learned that lesson long ago. It is too entwined with my identity and history to let go. But there is room in my heart for a little soccer, and if every four years I get distracted from the boys in pinstripes as they battle through the beginning of the sweltering summer heat, so be it. Next time I’ll be ready when the fever hits, ready to sit anxiously on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the ball as the U.S. makes another valiant attempt at glory.

Write to

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on July 8, 2010.

Share This: