One of the sillier Grand Questions our “Around the Horn” sports culture repeatedly asks: “When is America going to finally embrace soccer the way the rest of the world does?” The question, by nature, is flawed: There are millions of people in this country who are already into soccer, and most of them could care less whether the sports tourists among us want to join them. If you are a Yankees fan, do you really care whether someone who’s not into baseball is excited about your team? In any other realm, we abhor bandwagon fans. When it comes to American soccer, they’re the holy grail.
When soccer has a rare cameo in the sporting mainstream, like it did today in the United States’ FIFA Confederations Cup Final 3–2 loss to Brazil, mainstream commentators who haven’t watched a soccer game since 2006 tell us how important a victory would have been to the sport. Meanwhile, soccer fans couldn’t care less; they’re too devastated by the loss. The rest of us shrug and go back to watching baseball.
Had the United States defeated Brazil to win the Confederations Cup, it surely would have been the biggest soccer victory in U.S. history. And they were close. The United States, thanks to a fortunate goal from Clint Dempsey nine minutes in and a thrilling breakaway goal from the much-maligned Landon Donovan 26 minutes in, led 2–0 at halftime and inspired perhaps the sporting world’s first metaphoric erection from analyst Alexi Lalas at ESPN’s studio show. (International competition is the only time sports analysts are allowed to drop their pretend impartiality and just let it fly.) The U.S. was halfway to an historic upset. But in the second half, Brazil, a dramatically more talented team, dominated every aspect, and by the time they tied it up 74 minutes in, and then took the lead 85 minutes in, it was clear this wasn’t going to be this year’s version of the Miracle On Grass.
That the United States finished second is a monumental achievement, I suppose, if you are one of the people who knew what the FIFA Confederations Cup was in the first place. The problem, of course, is that most Americans don’t, and wouldn’t have, whether the United States had won or not. For about two hours yesterday, many American sports fans with little interest in soccer but who happened to be indoors or at a bar rooted for America, because it’s fun to root for America (who doesn’t root for America? Yeah!). And then, when the United States lost, they moved on with their lives. They won’t think about soccer again until next June at the World Cup. And then, most of them will just complain about how South African fans blow those awful horns all game.
One game is not a referendum on the state of soccer in this country. Brazil is not that into baseball, China is not that into football, Norway is not that into water polo. America is not that into soccer. The U.S. men’s soccer team just had the best week in its history. Good for them. Those who care are thrilled, those who don’t have already forgotten about it. There’s nothing wrong with either perspective. We will always like our team more than your team, and our sport more than your sport. That is how it should be. Sports is not a movement. It’s just entertainment. Go U.S.A.! Aw, they lost. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.