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An ancient game puts on a brand new face

Once the exclusive domain of males, the world's most popular sport isnow played by just about everyone from Beijing to Biloxi.

America's premier collegiate women's soccer coach, Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, was rhapsodizing the other day about the game: "It's an unbelievable challenge. Imagine playing a game with your feet."

And if you go directly to the core of the world's passionate love affair with soccer, it's obvious that almost everybody accepts the challenge, imagines such a thing, and embraces the game with fervor. The "Encyclopedia of World Sport" says that more men and women play and watch soccer worldwide than any other sport.

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Conversely, the United States populace has viewed the challenge and tried to imagine such a thing, but ends up shaking hands with soccer rather than embracing it.

Americans see a ball, and they want to catch it and throw it with their hands. Almost everyone else wants to kick it. It's a cultural disconnect. Plus, says coach Dorrance, elsewhere there's "a jingoism involved": Around the world, people view soccer "as an expression of their culture. They have an investment in it beyond sport."

Will the new millennium see the United States truly join in the soccer party? In "A Book of Soccer," Brian Glanville writes, "Today the professional game in America stands tantalizingly at the crossroads." He wrote this assessment in 1979.

Soccer seems always at the edge of doing something extraordinary in North America and getting in step with the world. Premier example: Pel, the greatest soccer player ever, came to New York in 1975 to play professionally. It was thought his presence would propel the sport to glory. It turned out to be more a quick fling than a lasting relationship with the American public.

It could be that the dramatic US women's World Cup win this year will be the impetus to get the sport to prime time. Consider that Wheaties is picturing some of the team members on its cereal box - including Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, and Mia Hamm - and that it's the first time in the cereal's 75-year-history that a soccer player has appeared there.

Because of women's soccer success, Dorrance says, "We've hit a peak none of us expected to ever see, even those of us [who are] wildly optimistic." Yet, it's a long way from a cereal box to the hearts of soccer-resistant Americans. Dorrance, who has coached Carolina 21 years and led the Tar Heels to 15 of the 19 women's collegiate titles ever contested, says: "We have to earn our place in the mainstream ... we haven't yet. But we are going to win over our fan base."

The main reason soccer does brilliantly elsewhere, suggests author and columnist Paul Gardner, is that "it got there first. Length of acquaintance makes a difference."

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Many nations have head starts of hundreds, even thousands, of years on the US. The Chinese played thousands of years before Christ. The game is generally agreed to have started in medieval European times when barbarians kicked around skulls of fallen victims. But the English are given credit for inventing the modern game in the 19th century.

The first international match was in 1872 between Scotland and England. The US officially got the game in 1913 and played its first international match in 1914 against Argentina. The first World Cup was in Uruguay in 1930.

As professional soccer tries to find its way in the US, Gardner points out it can't even find a good time to play because there's not a month left when it doesn't have to compete for attention with American football, basketball, or baseball.

Gardner suggests a new attitude is needed toward the dismal performances of the US men in World Cup play. They "are embarrassing only if you have feelings of American omnipotence.")

The US men were 32nd out of 32 teams in the 1998 World Cup.

Analyzing US soccer is a bit like looking out across the North Dakota landscape. Some see desolation. Others see beauty.

A recent survey of sports in American high schools shows that soccer ranks ninth in the number of schools offering it to boys, fifth for girls. North Carolina's women attracted 3,000 spectators a game in 1998 but only four other college teams averaged as many as 1,000. Carolina had 5,000 for a meaningless midweek contest this year.

Low-scoring games strike some as boring, and Gardner says, "The sport can be relentlessly dull if not played well." But Dorrance insists, "I think lack of scoring can make the drama of the game greater."

Gardner sees some newspaper editors feeling threatened by a sport they don't understand. Dorrance agrees there are some in the media who don't want soccer to succeed. However, he sees the women's World Cup hoopla as "not a soccer event, but a media awakening."

The biggest media problem is television. Gardner says the problem is producers and others responsible for airing the game who lack knowledge. He rates American TV coverage of soccer as "poor" in contrast, for example, to the excellent Spanish coverage of the game.

Gardner wrote recently in Soccer America that professional soccer "is struggling to create a soccer culture." Indeed, at the Major League Soccer all-star game in July in San Diego, attendance was a disappointing 16,000. The league reportedly is losing $20 million a year.

Among soccer's advantages, Dorrance says, is that it's a simple game (just 17 rules) and "anyone can play. There's no size or shape [of player] required."

As soccer rolls into the next millennium, it's both noteworthy and instructive that many thought baseball would be a sport that would make it in England. It hasn't. Basketball has made international inroads, but the rest of the world remains hopelessly behind the US. And American football is not much more than a curiosity in most of the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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