The air thickens with the aroma of spilled beer and that special type of musty scent unique to a room whose A/C is losing its battle with a densely-packed crowd on a warm summer day. But none of this matters, not one word is uttered or thought given to the huddled masses or anything apart from the action taking place on stage. A massive television projects 10 men looking like Firecracker popsicles darting all over the soccer field, frantically attempting to salvage a game that had so quickly turned sour in the hot Brazilian night. And we are right there with them, hands clenched around beer bottles, scarves, and flags, watching breathlessly as the clock creeps slowly towards the dreaded “90.”
As the number climbs to 83, then 84, then 85, our spirits sink in equal measure. And yet, when a corner is given to our beloved USA, everyone leans in a bit closer to the screen as if our focused intensity will somehow will the American players to do the impossible. As the ball slowly floats toward the mass of players crowded inside the 18 yard box, we scarcely have time to react as one of our heroes rises higher, higher, and higher still, heading the ball with authority down towards the ground. We watch as the ball slams off the turf, bouncing up and rattling the netting inside the goal. And then:
I had the great fortune of being invited to a watch party for the USA-Ghana match at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston about 10 days ago, and it was an event that completely changed my perspective on the future of soccer fandom in America. Budweiser (a primary World Cup sponsor) is putting on a series of free events across the country where fans gather, watch World Cup games, drink free Budweiser, and—at least in my case—enjoy a free concert by B.o.B. afterwards. These events do something that, until recently, basically didn’t exist in the United States: bring together soccer fans in a festive, fun atmosphere to watch a team that is actually good.
I am both proud and saddened to say that I have watched firsthand as the USA were eliminated from both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups. I was sitting in the crowd in Nuremburg when a Claudio Reyna turnover led to a Ghana goal to put the USA in a hole they’d never climb out of, and I was watching in horror in Rustenberg as Asamoah Gyan slammed an extra time winner past Tim Howard to send the USA packing once again. My strongest memory of both of those tournaments, though, is not so much the games themselves, but rather the atmosphere surrounding them.
99 percent of the people from all over the world who converge in the World Cup host country just want to have a good time, and the result is a wonderful melting pot of fans unified by their love of the game all congregating together and holding massive viewing parties for nearly every match. I will never forget sitting in an outdoor courtyard in Johannesberg watching South Africa’s final Group Stage match in 2010, witnessing the incredible passion with which people of all backgrounds were cheering on their team. It was a concept so foreign to me that I was certain I’d never have the opportunity to participate in something like that again.
USA-Ghana proved me wrong. A crowded room full of people decked out in red, white, and blue made me a believer that, in the not-too-distant future, America can become a nation full of year-round soccer fans who support their clubs as much as they do their country.
The euphoria surrounding the World Cup’s record ratings definitely needs to be tempered with a heavy dose of realism; as this well-done article astutely points out, the fact that this is a special event combined with a “USA vs. the World” element makes it a lot more attractive to the casual soccer fan than a Wednesday night MLS game. The game is popular in pockets in this country, largely on the coasts. Given all the other sports well established in America, it seems highly unlikely that soccer is ever going to develop into the nationwide phenomenon like it is in much of the rest of the world.
However, what is unique about the World Cup’s success is that soccer no longer exists on the margins of professional sports. The USA fans are taking over rock clubs in Boston and Grant Park in Chicago; people want to gather with their fellow fans and revel in the success of their team. Americans love a winner, and Jurgen Klinsmann and the 23 players have given this country (through two games at least) a team that truly looks like it can hang with the world’s elite.
USA may not win the 2014 World Cup, but they have inspired an admiration and newfound love of the game in much of America’s sports-watching public. People who might previously have deemed soccer “boring” and “slow” have now given it a try, and will at least grant that the game has some merits. A casual fan may get more serious, carrying this joyous World Cup experience into more seriously following the MLS and Barclay’s Premier League seasons. It’s all relative, but the success of an event like the Budweiser viewing party cements that soccer is gaining ground in the American sports psyche, one glorious John Brooks header, Jermaine Jones wonderstrike, and Clint Dempsey pelvic thrust at a time.
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