An American soccer fan at Rio, World Cup 2014. Hey, can you count all 50 stars? Not on the flag, silly. (Photo courtesy: Time.com)
It is clumpy, a typical Soviet style structure, surrounded by lush foliage, very close to residence of Fidel Castro. It is December 2011 and a cool 18°C, freezing by Cuban standards. There are no journalists camping outside. Absolutely no one is allowed within 5kms of the complex, unless he has the appropriate clearance that says he has official business there. Signs on surrounding streets forbid photography.
Somewhere inside the main complex, the man who called US President, George W Bush “the devil” in the UN General Assembly, is lying in a bed, fighting for his life. His body has begun feeding on itself. Right now the best Cuban specialists are battling a melanoma that has suddenly appeared in the man’s pelvis.
The man’s padre named him Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, but he is known by people back home and in other parts of the world as just Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. He is the man who dared.
One man has been granted an audience. A German journalist from Der Speigel, who has been given two minutes to ask the leader just one question. The German has come well prepared. His question sounds innocuous, given the time limitations.
“What do you think of ordinary Americans?” the journalist poses.
Chavez does not hesitate with his reply, “Oh, they are all fat and ugly,’ He replies, the grimace changing to a smirk, for an instant.
I was watching a news documentary of the encounter somewhere and it struck me for its irony. On one level Chavez was right. I have been told that America is a nation of overweight folk. But the way the Venezuelan strongman said it offended me. The remark explained his mindset quite clearly, which is a state of denial about the inherent greatness of a nation.
Since the World Cup is on, let’s take soccer.
Before 1990, fewer than 5 million Americans followed the game. That was 1.7% of the population then. Since then, the popularity of the game has grown exponentially. Americans don’t do things in halves. When they like something, you better step aside, because by God they are going to make sure they achieve it and that it will be top-of-the-line.
The metamorphosis to one of the world’s top soccer teams is nothing new to an American. Metamorphosis comes easy to Americans. Remember the awakening after Pearl Harbor and the transformation to the most powerful nation in the world? Or the conquest of the moon from a promise made by a President at a time when they had just finished sending monkeys up, to a voyage to remember?
Soccer in the US made the front pages briefly when the New York club, Cosmos, signed Pele to a three-year contract starting 1975, but the game failed to catch on, despite Pele’s star power. It really took off after the 1994 World Cup (which the US hosted). The game became more organized and Major League soccer (MLS), the professional US First-Division league was born that year.
MLS currently has 16 teams in the U.S. and 3 in Canada. One of these clubs, The Los Angeles Galaxy, is worth $160 million. International superstars such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and the Mexican idol Cuauhtémoc Blanco have all played in the MLS.
Even if their earliest incarnations may have been born elsewhere in the world, for the most part of contemporary history, the four major U.S. sports – American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, have been American sports and Americans brought them to global prominence. They gained popularity and commercial relevance within America gradually, over the past two centuries.
Soccer by contrast, is the first sport that rose to prominence entirely outside the United States and was imported into the US. It is now gaining in popularity at a much faster pace than the other four. A 2012 ESPN poll assessing hard-core fan bases in the US, holds football as still the most popular (33%), then baseball(20%), basketball(17%), ice hockey(9%) and fast catching up, soccer, at 7%.
What sets soccer apart is just the right mix of skill, adroitness and brawn that goes into the game. This and the fact that the rules are simple to understand, for even someone who has never watched it played before, makes it the ultimate spectator sport. Soccer in America, is expected to reach a committed fan base of 30% within the next decade, outstripping baseball, basketball and hockey and eventually overtaking even football by 2030. Don’t quote me but it is not impossible, given the way the hype is on.
Fan following and TV viewership have grown at an astonishing pace. Today stars such as Lionel Messi and Rinaldo figure in lists of top ten most popular sports personalities. Almost half the American households now have at least one member playing soccer and last Sunday’s US-Portugal World Cup match was watched by 30 million Americans. The US men’s national team has played in every World Cup since 1990, and the women’s national team has won the World Cup twice.
So, if you think all Americans are fat and ugly, Mr Hugo Chavez, think again.
To a great extent, the growing flood of Latin American immigrants (illegal or otherwise) has helped popularize soccer in the US. Today, 17% of Americans are Hispanic/Latino and another 5% are of mixed parentage. To the very last person, this 22% swears by soccer. And the percentage is growing in step with the rapidly advancing non-white demographics of America.
This is of course cause for alarm for the kissing cousins, Ku Klux Klan and Ann Coulter. They like to cut their noses to spite their faces. The evil, immigrant-hating right-wing shrew, Ann Coulter, says ‘..the growing interest in soccer in America is a sure sign of its moral decline…’
I guess there will always be loonies like Coulter. I am sorry I brought her name up, it leaves such a sour taste in the mouth, like when you have just puked.
Further, and this might be just my take, soccer is a macho, harshly physical sport that requires brute strength and stamina. This fits into the American ethos of competitiveness through the rough and tumble. Short (90min) and bone crushing is the mantra for any American sport that wants to acquire some degree of following.
In contrast, cricket, even in its 20/20 avatar, seems to most Americans like a sport that is wimpy and just sort of muddles along for hours on end. An American spectator would yawn if he had to sit through a pace bowler’s long run-up. If a baseball pitcher, the closest thing that Americans have to a bowler in cricket, had a run-up like that, trust me, baseball would be extinct.
Cricket will never achieve the kind of popularity in the US that soccer is about to. Even here in Canada, cricket has failed to catch on. In spite of fielding a team at the cricket World Cup tournaments regularly, the sport has little or no name recognition here, let alone awareness of how it is played. All you see is a bunch of Gujarati Patels playing weekend cricket in the corner of a playground to raucous shrieks of ‘Benchod, ha out ché!’
On the same token, American football would never find the same belligerent audiences in India. But who knows? Maybe they will start cloning 6-foot tall, 250lb Indians some day and we’ll have our own Joe Namaths and OJ Simpsons. One day maybe we’ll have an Indian football club called ‘Hunky Hindus’.