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The World Cup: Why Doesn't The U.S. Care As Much?

While the rest of the world is held captive by its collective interest, Americans sigh a definitive, "meh." In this photo, the United States soccer team poses for a photo before an international friendly soccer match against Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, June 7, 2014. (John Raoux/AP)
While the rest of the world is held captive by its collective interest, Americans sigh a definitive, "meh." In this photo, the United States soccer team poses for a photo before an international friendly soccer match against Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, June 7, 2014. (John Raoux/AP)
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Javiera Blanco is ready. The Chilean minister of labor and social welfare has accepted the inevitable: that her countrymen and women will be watching the national men’s team in the upcoming World Cup.

Since the first three matches all come during business hours, Blanco has requested that employers give workers the time off to watch “The Red,” starting with Friday’s game against Australia. As she put it, “there is a law that establishes an obligation to suspend the work day and deliver these hours. The call to all employers is that they can talk to their workers and reach a happy agreement because we all know that happy workers are more productive workers."

Additionally, a Chilean journalist, Felipe Castro, told me that his friends in the legal community have been told that there will be no hearings or proceedings in the courts when the matches are played.

We treat the World Cup like we treat the Olympics -- a quadrennial diversion worth our occasional attention.

This is probably a scenario that plays out elsewhere. One can easily envision the same thing happening in Brazil, Argentina, Spain and other countries. One can also easily envision it not happening — ever — in the good ole U.S. of A.

Can you imagine Labor Secretary Thomas Perez urging businesses to close down for the 90 minutes or so when the United States plays its games? Or Judge Roderick Ireland cancelling Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sessions so he and others can watch the Yanks?

Welcome to the 2014 World Cup. Or, as we call the monthlong period in the United States... Passover. (An old Bob Hope line from the Oscars.)

We just don’t care about soccer as much as the 31 other countries with World Cup-ready teams. The reasons are many. Soccer is well behind baseball, football, basketball and hockey on the list of team sports’ popularity. You could make a case it’s also behind college football and basketball in terms of the number of people who follow and care about a particular team. Our sporting interests are seasonal and diverse.

In the other World Cup countries, it’s soccer uber alles. There is no remotely competitive sport in many of the countries in terms of fan loyalty and affection. Spain has an excellent men’s basketball team and that sport is popular there. But its popularity is dwarfed by soccer. I can remember the Lakers’ Pau Gasol, who is from Spain, getting peppered with questions during the 2010 NBA Finals about Spain’s first-game upset loss to Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup. (Spain recovered nicely and won the whole thing.)

U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, pictured on June 1, 2014. (Julio Cortez/AP)
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, pictured on June 1, 2014. (Julio Cortez/AP)

That’s not to say Americans won’t tune in and follow their team (and others after it has been eliminated, most likely in the first round). We treat the World Cup like we treat the Olympics — a quadrennial diversion worth our occasional attention.

Most casual viewers would have trouble naming five players on the U.S. team, especially since the one most everyone knows, Landon Donovan, is not with the Yanks in Brazil. Many of the Americans play professionally overseas. While soccer has gained significant traction in the United States, particularly in cities like Seattle, Portland and Salt Lake City, the sport has not seen the explosive growth we once thought it would.

Then there’s the U.S. coach. He actually is a German (who relocated to southern California) and has impeccable credentials in the sport as both a player and a coach. Most Soccer Krishnas I know think Jurgen Klinsmann is a terrific hire for the U.S. men’s team.

Since Klinsmann took over in the summer of 2011, the U.S. has beaten Italy, Mexico and Germany. It has an international ranking of 13.

But Klinsmann delivered the ultimate buzzkill to this year’s World Cup when he told Sam Borden of the New York Times that “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”

OK Jurgen, here’s the thing. We all know that the USA cannot win the Cup. That is not a news bulletin. “The Daily Show” sent out a tweet with Klinsmann’s remarks, speculating that he might be trying to use extreme reverse psychology. The hashtag for the tweet: #obvi.


The U.S. has never won the World Cup. The last time the U.S. even made it to the Final Four was in 1930, the first World Cup, when there were 13 teams. From 1954 to 1986, the U.S. didn’t even qualify for the event. So, yeah, we are not buying the bunting and ribbons and renting the Duck Boats.

But you don’t say that for public consumption. You talk about the strength of the draw, the coming-together of a young team, the challenge of playing in Brazil. What you don’t do is tell the world your team is not good enough, especially since that means it’s not really your fault, even though you were the one who put the team together.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, our casual interest as a nation in this otherwise all-consuming sporting event.

The World Cup opens this Thursday. The United States’ first game is Monday against Ghana, the country that has sent the Yanks packing in the last two World Cups. Ghana is ranked 37th in the world, although it was 23th when the draw was made last December. The other scheduled games are Sunday, June 22 against Portugal, ranked No. 4, and Thursday, June 26 against Germany, ranked No. 2.

Only two teams from each of the eight groups advance to the knockout round of 16. The United States managed to get that far in 2010. It got to the quarterfinals in 2002. This year’s team faces a monumental task just getting out of its group.

The U.S. team is ranked one spot ahead of Chile. But in terms of overall enthusiasm and a nation being on the verge, the U.S. is nowhere near Chile. The rescued Chilean coal miners have even cut a commercial urging “The Red” to overcome nearly insurmountable odds, as the miners did.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, our casual interest as a nation in this otherwise all-consuming sporting event. As that renowned quote machine Bill Belichick would say, “it is what it is.”


Related:

Peter May Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Peter May was a sports writer at the Boston Globe for nearly two decades. He now teaches journalism at Brandeis University and is an occasional contributor to the New York Times.

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