For some Americans, soccer has long been a spectator staple, but the rest of us are just getting started.
It’s hard for me to imagine that just a few weeks ago the world’s attention was focused on Brazil and the 2014 World Cup. Even in war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria people gathered at cafes to watch the games. In the United States, where baseball normally rules this time of year, fans came out in droves to support “Team USA.” Fan zones were set up across the country and sports bars beamed live World Cup coverage on their widescreens.
Brazil hosted one of the most exciting World Cups I have ever watched. And considering that my beloved Azzurris were knocked out in the group stages, that is saying something. Actually, because Pirlo, Buffon, Balotelli, De Rossi and the rest of the team made an early exit, I was able to look at the tournament in its entirety and admire all the different styles of play without being bogged down by the fate of just one team.
There were many memorable moments, including the first big shocker when Spain — the reigning European and World Cup champion — was eliminated in the opening round. Then there was the biting incident when Luis Suárez deliberately sank his teeth into the shoulder of Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross to Silvestre Varela in the dying seconds of extra time to save Portugal from defeat against the Americans, was definitely one of the most memorable goals of the tournament.
In front of the goal there were remarkable saves, but, hands down, the most impressive goalies were Tim Howard from the U.S. and Mexican goalie Guillermo Ochoa. Howard kept the U.S. alive against Belgium in the round of 16, blocking 16 shots on goal. In the end, the Americans lost, but no fault to Howard — he alone lifted U.S. soccer to another level. Ochoa was equally impressive, batting away six blistering shots to hold a stunned Brazilian team to a goalless draw.
Besides impressive plays, stunning goals and spectacular saves, there was also the ugly side to the 2014 World Cup. Nobody can argue that Brazilian striker Neymar took the brunt of the punishment when he was kneed in the back by Colombian defender Juan Zúñiga. Whether it was deliberate or not is anyone’s guess, but seeing Neymar lying on the pitch in pain will remain one of the lasting images from these games.
Without Neymar and the team’s captain, Thiago Silva, who was suspended for a second yellow card, Brazil looked the weaker going into the final against Germany. At the half, Germany was leading 5-0, with four goals scored within six minutes. Brazil was in shock as its team went into the locker room at halftime. Television images showed a country in mourning, and there were still 45 minutes left to play. In the end, the “Samba Boys” went down 7-1. Not only did it end their 62-game winning streak at home, but worse, the result became one of Brazil’s two worst losses, equaling a 6-0 defeat to Uruguay at the 1920 Copa America. Who would have guessed that the biggest shock of the 2014 World Cup would have come at the expense of the host nation?
I have many fond memories of past World Cup championships. My earliest memory is watching Paolo Rossi score a hat-trick against Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, knocking Brazil out of the tournament. Italy then went on to defeat Poland in the semi-finals, and Germany in the finals, to secure their third World Cup title. Since then, I have been a loyal Azzurri supporter.
Unfortunately, there were a few ugly incidents in the 1982 World Cup that changed the way the game is officiated. In the group stages, then-West Germany and Austria made a pact to eliminate Algeria from advancing to the knockout round. Algeria had shocked the world in their opening game by defeating West Germany 2-1 to become the first African nation to defeat a European country in World Cup history. When Austria faced West Germany for the last game of the group stage, the point difference was such that all Germany had to do to advance ahead of Algeria was defeat Austria by one goal. After Germany secured a goal 10 minutes into the game, the two sides basically passed the ball back and forth for the next 80 minutes, knowing full well that they would both go on to the next round. One German TV commentator was so annoyed by the lackluster performance that he told his audience to turn off their television sets.
Since then, the last two games of the group stages are played simultaneously so no two teams can ever collaborate with one another again.
The second tragedy to mar the 1982 World Cup was the collision between West German goalie Harald Schumacher and French defender Patrick Battiston. Schumacher charged out from his goal and instead of going for the ball, which Battiston kicked wide, deliberately decked Battiston, knocking him senseless. Battiston lost three teeth in the collision, broke his jaw, fractured a vertebra, and slipped into a temporary coma. It’s considered one of the most brutal collisions in World Cup history. To add insult to injury, Schumacher was not penalized for the incident and France went on to lose the game.
Today, FIFA can look back at television footage if there are suspicions that a malicious foul was committed and penalize a player after the game.
In 1988, it was announced that the U.S. would host the 1994 World Cup. Up until that point, very few Americans had heard about the World Cup and didn’t understand all the media hype surrounding the games. It wasn’t until venues such as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Soldier Field in Chicago, Stanford Stadium, Foxboro Stadium and Giants Stadium, were announced, that Americans took notice. One reason why most Americans hadn’t a clue about the World Cup was that U.S. had not qualified in 40 years. Prior to 1990, the last time the U.S. had qualified was in 1950.
Besides having not qualified in four decades, there was still another reason why soccer never gained a foothold in the U.S.
I was thumbing through my senior high school yearbook recently, when I came across the page featuring the varsity soccer team. The headline above the team picture read “Los Campeones Otra Vez” and at the top of the page, in English, “CIF Champions – 3rd Straight Year.“
I’m sure I was well aware of their achievements back in 1976, but that was pretty much the extent of it. I never attended any of their games, nor did I know anyone who did. Looking at the yearbook photos of the team playing in front of empty bleachers, it was obvious that soccer back then was not a spectator sport. It’s amazing to think that they won three consecutive Southern California championships in what was one of the toughest leagues in the nation, and all that us students ever celebrated were our mediocre football and basketball teams.
Up until the 1994 World Cup, very few Americans followed soccer. Most of the fans, where I grew up, were predominantly Mexican-Americans. Football, basketball, baseball and, to a much lesser extent, ice hockey, dominated the American sports scene and psyche.
Network television left little room for any other team sports, and I’m positive that was partially due to advertisers who were more concerned about commercial breaks than the actual sport itself.
For a television audience, there is nothing better than to watch soccer because for 45 minutes there is no break in the action. For television executives, however, the lack of breaks means a lack of revenue. I’m sure if they were able to introduce television timeouts, like they did in basketball, soccer in the U.S would have taken off a long time ago.
It’s ironic that America, a country that prides itself on its multicultural diversity, has taken so long to embrace the only team sport considered to be global. The good news, though, is that soccer is finally here to stay!