By Stephanie Calvano
GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!! Get your vuvuzelas ready because the World Cup semi-finals are underway … or you can do what I did and download the vuvuzela app!
After nearly a month of competition, a new country will be crowned World Cup King on July 11th. A quick look at the history books will tell you the first FIFA World Cup was held in 1930 where host Uruguay won it all, and believe it or not, the United States placed third overall that year. With the game clock still running in 2010 … the 19th World Cup is being played in South Africa, and there have been plenty of upsets (reigning World Cup winner Italy and runner-up France were knocked out after the first round), controversies (bad calls, disallowed goals), and excitement, not to mention the constant buzz of vuvuzelas.
But, have people in the U.S. been watching the World Cup? According to the latest national Marist Poll, 37% of Americans, me included, say they are watching most or some of the month-long event. As someone who has been watching since it started in early June, and continues to watch even though U.S.A. has been eliminated, that finding was bittersweet. At first glance, I thought, “only 37%.” Then, as I thought about it further, I realized that nearly 4 out of 10 watchers isn’t so bad considering supposedly “nobody watches soccer.”
I personally equate the World Cup to the Olympics. Regardless of one’s interest in the game of soccer, the bottom line is that, as a country, we rally behind our guys. You may not know all the players’ names, that the field is called the “pitch,” or understand all the rules, but you know that there’s a group of guys representing the red, white, and blue and want them to succeed. I was watching the USA’s final World Cup game against Ghana at a restaurant. There were “ohs” and “ahs” when a great opportunity to score was missed, there was cheering, there was an entire restaurant on the edge of their seats when Landon Donovan took his penalty kick and then sent it into the back of the net to tie the game. That day, everyone there was a soccer fan, because everyone was a USA fan.
In 1998, I was on a school trip to France and Spain the year the World Cup was in France. I remember we were getting on the metro to go to dinner, and it was packed with people coming from a game. Their faces were painted, and they were singing. It was incredible to see and a moment I will never forget. My classmates and I, as well as other hotel patrons, hovered around the small TV in the lobby to watch the games (when our educational tour schedule permitted, of course). At 15, it didn’t sink in then, but it’s incredible that one event can have such a unifying effect. We didn’t all have the same native language, but we all spoke one language … The World Cup.
Soccer is a language I’ve been speaking for a while. It has been an important part of my life since I first stepped onto a field at 6 years old. For the next 12 years, it was something I could not do without. I played on local town teams until I aged out, joined the JV team in middle school, and played Varsity soccer in high school. And, because playing in the fall wasn’t enough, I played indoor soccer in the winter. I even sustained an injury that left me with six screws and a plate in my ankle as mementos. Granted, it has been a decade since the last time I played soccer competitively, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the sport any less. As it always does, watching the World Cup makes me want to get back out there and play again.
I believe playing soccer as a child makes me more inclined to follow the World Cup. In fact, when you look at the results from Marist’s latest national survey, of USA residents who played soccer when they were young, nearly 6 in 10 — 58% — say they are watching most or some of the World Cup.
It’s no secret that professional soccer in the United States doesn’t hold a candle to “futbol” in Europe and South America. But, this World Cup has been making headlines with atrocious officiating, talks of using instant replay, upsets, and even “off-the-pitch”drama. Is that enough to make Americans want to take in a soccer game? Or does Major League Soccer need to revamp and find ways to “Americanize” the game to make it more attractive here? I don’t know the answer, but I do hope that Major League Soccer can ride the World Cup wave and maybe, just maybe, at the next World Cup in 2014, it won’t take a bad call, a milestone goal, or a tabloid story for everyone to know the group of guys that are Team USA!