Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's a Small World After All

The sugary, often-quoted Disney song "It's A Small World After All'' actually seems to correspond to reality every once in a while. That's certainly true during the FIFA World Cup tournament, when eyes around the planet adhere to the television screen to see who will rule the world of international football for the next four years - and World Cup tourism pours needed revenue into countries such as South Africa, this year's host nation.

Indeed, a report from Visa Inc. says that South Africa's tourism revenue in the period right before the World Cup 2010 tournament started, and during the first week of play, soared 54 percent over the same time last year. Visitor spending was led by travelers from the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, Australia, France and Brazil. More than "90 percent of spending was in typical leisure and business categories - accommodation, restaurants, retail, automobile rentals and air travel,'' according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

My home country, the United States, is both part of this quadrennial sport and travel ritual, and not. Football - or soccer, as we call it in the U.S., to differentiate it from its distant descendant, American football - enlists many boys and girls in youth leagues. But on the professional level it is at most the fourth most popular sport, after American football, basketball and baseball - maybe fifth, counting ice hockey. American women have won a World Cup, but American men have developed only fitfully on the pitch and still don't seriously challenge the world's top national sides, regardless of what U.S. media cheerleaders say.

America's push to join the world of football is both aspirational and delusional. It's a good thing, I think, to want to share the excitement of what most of the world calls "the beautiful game,'' but delusional on America's part to think our national team is good enough to do that. It's not - not yet.

The men's side, bounced from the tournament by Ghana, 2-1, in extra time, was forced to end what a U.S. national newspaper hyberbolically termed "a thrilling run to the World Cup.''

Excuse me, did you say run? The U.S. played four times and won once. The Americans were lucky to draw in their opener against unexpectedly weak England on a goalkeeper's error, had to rally to tie a team they were expected to beat (Slovenia), had to rally again to win in penalty time on Landon Donovan's dramatic goal to beat another team they were expected to beat (Algeria), then lost their first and only match in the field of 16, scoring their sole goal on a penalty kick. Ghana punched in two no-doubt-about-it goals on strong, athletic runs downfield. In 390 minutes of tournament play, the U.S. led for just three minutes. This was not a good team.

America has flirted with football before. In 1950, the U.S. stunned England, 1-0, in what is still America's finest hour in the World Cup. The old New York Cosmos, featuring stars like Franz Beckenbauer and the legendary Pele in the twilight of their careers, drew crowds of more than 70,000 fans in the 1970s before the stars twinkled out and the Cosmos (and the North American Soccer League) vanished. In 1994, the U.S. proved a competent and enthusiastic host to World Cup play, selling out venues around the country for that year's tournament. Bringing the World Cup back in the next decade might help close the deal with American athletes and sports fans.

Football's growth in the U.S. continues to be steady but slow, absent a breakthrough experience. Major League Soccer, founded in 1996, in a feel-good era following the 1994 World Cup, is a developmental league, corresponding to triple-A pro baseball at best in calibre of play. Gifted players leave the U.S. to play for money and glory in Europe. MLS clubs like the grandly named Los Angeles Galaxy generally play small stadiums in places like Carson, California, a nondescript suburb - not in starry L.A.

As an American and a fan, I hope this sporting-world version of what political scientists, in another context, call American exceptionalism will end. I'd like to stop calling it soccer. I'd like to be able to go to a match like the one I caught in Hamburg during the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, when Germany hosted. There, I saw polished football, full of grace and strategy and speedy, pinpoint passing, as host Hamburg SV took on (and lost to) VfB Stuttgart in a Bundesliga showdown before a large crowd. That quality of play doesn't exist in my part of the world.

For now, I'll watch the World Cup tournament on television, and dream on about joining that small world the Disney carolsters sing about.

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