Beautiful game has moved from America’s fringe cinemas to the multiplexes

Soccer has won over the sceptics as US fans flock to bars and parks to watch the national team compete in the World Cup

Fans in Grant Park, Chicago, watch the US beat Ghana, a victory that elevated awareness of the game to a whole new level. Photograph: Getty Images

Fans in Grant Park, Chicago, watch the US beat Ghana, a victory that elevated awareness of the game to a whole new level. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 08:00

Mike Francesa might be the most famous sports talk radio host in America. For 25 years, this notorious curmudgeon has been the dominant voice on New York’s WFAN, and his popularity is such that since 2002, his daily afternoon show has been simulcast on cable television.

Two months ago, Francesa grew apoplectic on air when Fox Sports 1 bumped him from their schedule for two consecutive days in order to run the Champions’ League live. In an all too typical response from an American of a certain age, he accused Fox of trying “to put everybody to sleep with that soccer”.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Francesa’s listeners must have been shocked and some, no doubt, appalled, to find him discussing that very sport. At length.

A change of heart prompted by seeing the way the country collectively lost its mind when John Anthony Brooks rose to head the winner against Ghana the previous night, a goal that elevated awareness of the game to a whole other level.

In New York, more people watched that 2-1 victory than tuned into the admittedly foregone conclusion last round of the US Open, the final game of the NBA finals (featuring that sport’s biggest star in LeBron James), and the final game of the NHL’s Stanley Cup (involving the city’s beloved New York Rangers).

“I saw a guy make a winning kick with a lefty kick,” rasped Francesa at one point in his exploration of the deep mysteries of the beautiful game. “Are there guys who kick with both legs?”

It would be easy to scoff at his ignorance except his curiosity can actually be interpreted as something of a tipping point for the game in America. Francesa represents not so much the old as the ancient school, an anachronism in terms of how he has steadfastly clung to the traditional sports of baseball, grid-iron and basketball, only very occasionally allowing debate about hockey and (hardly more than four times a year) golf.

Foreign delicacy

To this 60-year-old, and to so many of his peers, soccer has always been an exotic foreign delicacy, a sort of sporting equivalent of arthouse movies, something they knew existed but scarcely had to concern themselves with. Until now.

Over the past few weeks, the game has moved from the fringe cinemas to the multiplexes. From the moment Jurgen Klinsmann announced he’d be leaving Landon Donovan at home, the media coverage has intensified and remained constant.

Having evinced guts (and maybe short-sightedness) in dropping the national talisman from his squad, the German courted further controversy when he asserted that the USA had no chance of winning the tournament in Brazil. That sounded sensible enough to most observers but to the more jingoistic and less-informed sections of the American press, this was a scandal and, perversely, that was a good thing.

See, the knock-on effect of those brouhahas, not to mention ESPN running a fly on the wall documentary series from the American training camp, ensured that the anticipation going into the Ghana game was on a much different scale than anything we’ve seen before.

In Chicago’s Grant Park, so many people turned out to watch the match that many latecomers were too far back to be able to properly glimpse the 19 by 33 foot screen. A few climbed trees to try to snag a better view and the authorities have responded to the size of that crowd by moving the outdoor party for tomorrow’s clash with Portugal to a more spacious part of the park.

Americans are event junkies so, like college basketball’s March Madness, the World Cup is perfect for luring in the casual sports fan, not just to watch but also to subscribe to office betting pools.

That Klinsmann’s team won their first game in such dramatic circumstances meant the victory also had much more impact than if they’d strolled to a facile win. Clint Dempsey suffering a broken nose and staying on through the pain probably did wonders for the future box office prospects of the team too. This is a nation where “playing hurt” has always been a crucial part of sporting lore.

That this was always going to be a World Cup of a different kind in America was signposted from way back. As soon as Fifa put match tickets on general sale, fans living in the USA purchased more of them than any other country except the hosts.

Even allowing for the fact some of those were undoubtedly supporters of other nations, it’s telling that there are estimated to be more than 20,000 American fans in attendance, all ready to belt out their favourite chant, the positively Obamaesque “I believe that we will win!” at every opportunity.

If those who have travelled to Brazil are the hardcore, the self-styled American Outlaws, there are plenty of other ways to gauge how much increased interest there is back home. Even before a ball was kicked, we found Target (American for Penney’s) selling cheap, imitation international shirts. Never seen that before. In the supermarket, we noticed more and items on the shelves with World Cup logos on them. Watching television each night, we were suddenly bombarded with soccer-themed commercials.

Big screens

All of this may be old hat in Ireland and other countries with long-standing cases of World Cup fever but in America, the sudden proliferation of pubs advertising matches and towns setting up big screens so t families can watch in parks is a new and welcome departure.

Twenty years after USA 94, it’s tempting and completely wrong to try to fit all this into a convenient “America finally gets soccer” narrative. Plenty of Americans have “got” soccer for a long time, something borne out by the three million or so registered youth players and the rude, good health of the under-age game in the country today.

What is different now is that these kids and their parents have access to so much quality soccer all the time. Aside from a half-decent national league (MLS may be obsessed with purchasing over-the-hill stars from Europe but it did send 22 players to Brazil) that is expanding on a yearly basis, they can and do gorge themselves on a rich weekly diet of televised fare from all over the globe.

This is the country where NBC spent $250m buying the rights to the Premier League for three seasons, and proceeded to make every single game available live, along the way discovering a niche market for advertisers in the previously dead slots of Saturday and Sunday mornings.

On any given weekend from August to May, the American fan can watch an average of 50 plus live games on his television, from the Bundesliga, the Scottish Premier League, Ligue Un, La Liga, Serie A, and even the Championship.

Throw in the Champions’ League and it’s easy to see why nobody trots out tired old shibboleths about “ignorant” Americans cheering for corners anymore.

Best illustration

Perhaps the best illustration of how America’s embrace of the World Cup is merely a fresh symptom of a longer-standing disease is this. Back in April, fans snapped up 100,000 tickets in 24 hours to see Manchester United take on Real Madrid on August 2nd at The Big House, one of college grid-iron’s most storied cathedrals in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a town with a population of just over 100,000.

“International soccer is cool with the cool kids,” says Brooklyn-based writer Patrick Sauer. “No doubt about it, hipsters have taken to it, I think in part because they’ve been to Europe, South America, whatever, and in coastal/urban/college town America, they have friends from those very countries. If you follow basic political trends, most educated millennials mirror Western European values, so why wouldn’t they dig soccer, especially the World Cup?”

Although the NFL remains by some distance America’s national sport, twice as many young adults gave soccer rather than baseball as their favourite sport in a survey earlier this year. Market research also shows that while the average baseball fan is 53 years old, his soccer counterpart is 37 and that demographic is skewing ever younger. All of that may explain why, as is normal whenever interest in soccer spikes, cranks on air and in print denounce the sport for all sorts of reasons that say more about them and their prejudices than the game itself.

The other day, the celebrated sportswriter John Feinstein acknowledged the burgeoning interest in soccer before then calling for Fifa to change the rules to make it more entertaining. If Feinstein might have been expected to know better, his contribution paled next to Sarah Palin.

“Back on the campaign trail in ‘08 I spoke with an American patriot and veteran who served in Iraq,” wrote Palin on Facebook. “He said the Iraqi terrorists would all play soccer in the streets of Baghdad together. If that is the sort of person who loves that sport, count me out. Here in Real America, we don’t watch soccer.”

The many millions of “Real Americans” gathering around televisions, at home, in beer gardens, in public parks and in stadia across the country to watch the Portugal match tomorrow might beg to differ.

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