May 19, 2014
It’s T-minus three weeks until the kickoff of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It’s the greatest sporting event in the world and something I’ve watched every four years since I was a kid. I’m a card-carrying member of The American Outlaws, the United States Men’s National Team official supporters’ organization. I go to as many qualifying and friendly matches as possible; for those I’m not lucky enough to attend, I watch religiously on TV. I honestly get giddy just thinking about the World Cup finally being here.
Yet, as excited as I get, every time the World Cup rolls around I also get a bit depressed.
That’s because even though the World Cup is a huge cultural event around the world, it’s almost nonexistent in the U.S. And it’s not the fact that Americans dismiss the game itself as boring and refuse to watch it that gets me down. For as much passion as I have for the sport, it has nothing to do with the sport itself. It’s that for so many fans around the world, the World Cup is the purest expression of the love for their homeland, the truest expression of who they are as a people. It’s the one time they can stand draped in their colors and say, “This is my team. This is my country.This is who I am”
See, in most countries, no matter who you are or where you’re from, everyone roots for the same national soccer team. La Roja in Spain. El Tri in Mexico. The Three Lions in England. La Azzuri in Italy. The Oranje of The Netherlands. The Samba Kings in Brazil. It doesn’t matter your race, class, age, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or what sports team you root for day-to-day; when it comes to your country’s national soccer team, everyone bleeds the same color.
But in the U.S., people could take it or leave it. And that kills me. Again, not that people don’t watch a soccer match, but that it’s such a missed opportunity to unite our nation under a single banner. It’s one of the only opportunities for nations to compete against nations in such a focused way and bring all the disparate people within their borders together for a single cause. Rooting for the USMNT is, in essence, the single most American thing we can do, but for some reason it’s become almost more patriotic to shun soccer as a European intrusion on our “Live Free or Die” ideals.
If you don’t believe me, look at the TV ratings for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. All told, more than 3.2 billion people watched some part of the World Cup. That’s 46 percent of the entire population of Earth at the time. Nearly 1 billion people watched the Spain v. Netherlands final.
In comparison, 2014’s Super Bowl XLVIII was the most-watched American TV program of all time, and had a global audience of just 114 million. That’s a ninth of the people who watched the World Cup final. How many people watched the World Cup final in the US? A paltry 24.3 million. The final didn’t involve the US, you might say? Well, USMNT’s landmark game against Ghana that year was watched by only 19.4 million.
But, at the end of the day, it’s not even really about the numbers, however shockingly revealing they are. It’s about something so much deeper. For instance, in 2010 I was in L.A. with a great friend of mine who is originally from Madrid. For him, the fact that Spain was playing for the World Cup final was an inexpressible joy. La Roja is one of the greatest soccer teams in history, and is currently widely considered to be the greatest. However, even though Spain is a storied team, it still had never won a World Cup since 1930. My friend didn’t know – honestly had no idea – if he would ever see the team he bled for ever hoist the World Cup trophy while he was still alive. And yet, there he was, watching them in a bar in Long Beach, surrounded by other nearly 100 other Spaniards, with the opportunity to see them do just that. None of them there knew each other, but for that game, they were brothers and sisters.
When Spain won 1-0, I saw my friend drop to his knees and weep like I’ve never seen a grown man weep, in absolute, sheer joy. All of the Spaniards there embraced in ecstacy, as if they had been best friends their whole life. They then went over to one of their houses and proceeded to celebrate for days following. Again, these people did not know each other but for that historic day, they were one. United under the colors of Spain.
The U.S. may never win a World Cup. I hope that’s not true, but at least in my lifetime it’s a definite possibility. But that doesn’t matter. There are countries that have ZERO chance of even qualifying for a World Cup and are still as passionately cheered on by the majority of their countrymen as those of the great six-time champions, Brazil. What matters is that soccer serves as a sport that can unite us, that can bring us to our knees with a visceral pride in our country that we won’t feel on the collective whole at any other time.
In many ways, we are a country defined by the things that divide us. We are a melting pot, not in that we create a homogeneous mass when mixed together, but rather because this great nation allows anyone, from any walk of life, to come here and prosper while retaining whatever cultural identity defines them. That’s a beautiful thing, but at the extreme end, when it’s all we focus on, it creates a culture of walled gardens, where those differences drive us even further apart. Politics, race, class, sexual orientation, geographical location and so many other things turn neighbors against each other. That’s the point, though: These things that divide us are the very things that should unite us. That despite all our variation and wonderful diversity, we can call ourselves Americans. That the very thing that makes us American is that we can so freely be different. So it makes sense that the one thing that should be able to unite us – that should be a rallying point of every person – is a united team of completely different men, of completely different cultural backgrounds, coming together on the world stage for a single cause.
So I beseech you, I implore you, to root for the United States Men’s National Soccer Team in Brazil when they play their opening match June 16 against Ghana. I don’t care if you don’t “like” soccer. That doesn’t matter, because it is your neighbor you’ll be rooting for. Your great-grandmother who immigrated to New York from Europe in the early 1900s. It’s for your coworkers and your children. It’s for the people you’ve never even met who live on the opposite side of the country. You’re rooting for them because they are you and vice versa. That it’s the country that you’re rooting for. The fact that this is playing out on a soccer field is both meaningless and means everything at the same time.
So embrace it. Take pride in it. And spend the summer cheering our boys onto victory.
“I. I BELIEVE. I BELIEVE THAT.”
June 10, 2014