In the U.S., soccer is considered more of a children’s activity than bona fide sport, niche programming appropriate for a mid-afternoon spot on ESPN 8 between competitive hacky sack and the World Series of Poker. The world’s obsession is all well and good, but for us? Football means first downs and cheerleaders, thankyouverymuch.
Yet the spectacle of a World Cup is enough to compel even stubborn Americans to pay attention. Last time, in 2006, Italy’s victory over France drew 16.9 million viewers in the U.S. Those are American Idol numbers, and this year promises to be even bigger. The U.S. – surprisingly ‑ leads the world in tickets purchased for this summer’s World Cup, and the core group of supporters, dubbed “Sam’s Army,” is larger than ever.
While the die-hards are as dedicated as anyone in the world, they will be well outnumbered when the U.S. kicks off against England on June 12. The audience for that game will be the largest for any U.S. Men’s national team game ever. It will also be the most uninformed viewership of any World Cup nation.
Among them will be a special American brand of modern jackass: World Cup Guy.
You know the type. He fancies himself an expert, or a European, or both. He’ll show up in a Beckham jersey with the tags still on it, use the word “footie,” and generally act like he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll pontificate on players and tactics like a cab driver from Rio. The secret? He has no idea what he’s talking about.
So get armed with the facts now. He’ll never see it coming.
The World Cup is contested between 32 teams who mostly earned their spots though regional qualifying tournaments. The teams are drawn into eight groups of four. Each team plays each other team in its group once, earning three points for a win, one point for a draw, and nothing for a loss. The top two teams move on to the knockout stage, where it’s winner-moves-on until there’s only one left standing.
The US team is the strongest it’s ever been, with a core of veteran players in their prime supported by a bevy of young talent.
Included in that veteran group is midfielder Landon Donovan, the only American player World Cup Guy will have heard of. This is not only the last World Cup of his prime but also his last chance to get signed by a big European team.
The defense is anchored by the strong trio of Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Their main weakness is speed, and a quick attacker like England’s Aaron Lennon could cause them problems.
Of the guys nobody has heard of, the most promising is midfielder Michael Bradley, son of head coach Bob Bradley. He’s had a good career in Europe so far and looks like a potential world star. His midfield partner will be either the precise passer Jose Torres or the powerful, gritty Maurice Edu. Twenty-year-old striker Jozy Altidore will lead the attack.
Altidore’s close friend and fellow striker Charlie Davies was left nearly paralyzed by a car accident in October. The driver, a friend of Davies, was killed. Davies made a Herculean effort to return in time for the World Cup, but ultimately missed out, leaving Altidore without his preferred strike partner and the U.S. team with no clear second starter up front.
There are plenty of other problems. In preliminary matches the U.S. defense looked shaky and disorganized. Onyewu and DeMerit are recovering from injuries, and it’s unclear whether they’re playing at full capacity. Coach Bradley selected only seven defenders, and if Onyewu or DeMerit can’t play, they’re in trouble.
But the team has an edge: chemistry. Other countries may have 23 star players, but they’re distant stars, never willing or able to build the trust and cohesion that the U.S. team has.
World Cup Guy will probably harp on how awful America is – or how amazing. The truth is somewhere in between. For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. can legitimately expect to get through the group stage. Further progression is unlikely, but with a bit of luck, they can beat anyone.
Brazil, Spain, England, and Argentina lead the pack. Spain is absolutely stacked with talent, but has traditionally underperformed at the World Cup and has never won it. Brazil is often the runaway favorite, but the team’s best players at the moment aren’t quite as good as usual, and they have had to adapt their approach to stress strong tactics and fundamentals over flashy skill.
England has plenty of talent but tends to collapse in spectacular fashion when the pressure gets high. Despite inventing the game, they’ve only won the World Cup once, 44 years ago, generating a culture of losing that could easily derail them.
Argentina is the mystery of the group. They have wonderful talent – including the world’s best player, Lionel Messi – and are coached by the legendary Diego Maradona. But Maradona’s playing career ended in a coke-induced tailspin, and his decisions as a manager have been inexplicably poor.
Messi scored a phenomenal 47 goals for Barcelona this year (ordinary forwards score 12 goals per year, world-class forwards score 30). World Cup Guy will think that Messi’s presence will be enough to lead Argentina to glory. But Messi has never played his best for Argentina, where he is usually asked to occupy an unfamiliar role with less support. Don’t be surprised if he stinks.
Transition and Turmoil
World Cup Guy will consider Italy, France, and Portugal elite, but this World Cup finds them all in an awkward phase. Each of these teams has a group of once-great players who are past their glory days, and the next generation hasn’t matured enough to make up for the diminishing effectiveness of the veterans.
The French team in particular is in trouble. They’re in midst of a cringe-inducing scandal involving an underage prostitute, barely qualified for the competition, and have a lame-duck head coach with a 22% approval rating from French fans. They could go out early.
World Cup Guy may wonder why the players are wearing long sleeves – it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere. World Cup Guy’s favorites Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were not selected by Brazil, but Portuguese forward Christiano Ronaldo is in. Several superstars will miss all or part of the tournament through injury, notably England’s Rio Ferdinand, Ghana’s Michael Essien, and Ivory Coast’s Dider Drogba.
South Africa is terrible, but no host nation has ever failed to qualify for the group stage, and with the nation behind them, they may have some success.
Every match will be instrumentalized by thousands of Vuvuzelas, stadium horns that annoy everyone but the South Africans. Even more annoying is the sound of World Cup Guy asking what “that buzzing sound” is, as the issue has been discussed ad nauseum in soccer circles.
Unlike professional sports, where the fans care more than the players, and Olympic sports, where the players care more than the fans, the World Cup earns 100% passion from both sides.
The World Cup is the globe’s biggest sporting event because of this elusive, unique harmony. It’s a stubborn oasis from our dominant cynical sports culture, a refuge for sportsmanship and pride. America pays attention simply because there’s nothing else like it. Shut World Cup Guy up, sit back, and enjoy.