Americans should drop the pretense of not being a football nation. They are as much a football nation as anybody else—they just have a terrible football league. No one should be surprised if they do well this summer.
[Editorial Note: throughout this piece, the word “football” will be used to refer to the beautiful game played with your foot, whereas the word “Gridiron” will be used to refer to the American bastardised version of Rugby. Live with it.]
By now everyone thinks of America as not being a football nation. America likes to think of itself as anti-football, and football, at times, seems to think of itself as Anti-America. It has almost become a part of American folklore to hate the sport, and disdain foreigners for daring to prefer this boring no-action sport to good fun American ones like Basketball, Baseball, and Gridiron. Just look at this recent spate of Onion articles mocking the World Cup.
On the other hand, football has for long appealed to people worldwide as a great arena of international competition precisely because Americans were so pathetically bad at it. The US Army’s invasions of the world may be only matched by those of American brands like McDonald’s, Friends, Madonna, Puff Daddy, and Coca-Cola; but in football, you could regularly count on the Americans getting their asses handed to them by the likes of Germany, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Yugoslavia and… yes… Iran.
And as much as American brands of all types succeeded in conquering the world, American sports could never really gain much appeal outside America. Baseball and Basketball have developed some popularity abroad, and the Super Bowl is occasionally watched by a some foreigners (nowhere near the ridiculous usually touted 1-Billion viewers figure,) but these sports have nothing like the appeal of football around the world—in viewership or participation. America has completely failed to conquer the world with its sports.
It seems, however, that America is now trying, instead, to conquer the world in the world’s sport.
But, before we discuss that, let’s get one thing straight. America is a football nation.
Having just lived in America for five years, I know that football in America has come leaps and bounds from where it was a few decades ago. Football is one of the most popular sports to play in all America. Youths of all ages and demographics and locations play it. It is not a game restricted to recent immigrants from football-crazed countries; it is now played by most all classes and ethnicities of American society. Red-State, Blue-State, rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, immigrant, recent immigrant, and distant immigrant all take part. Some statistics even show that it is the most played sports among youths.
Flying into American cities one is struck by how many more football field once sees from the sky than baseball fields. And the site of a baseball field being used as a football field is now a common occurrence across America. All around America, baseball youth leagues have been consistently losing players to football leagues. There is no questioning the mass success the game has enjoyed in attracting people to play it.
And the American national team has improved as a result, and has come a long way from the shambles of the 1990 team that was only able to make the tournament after Mexico were disqualified for faking players’ ages—or as part of a FIFA-USA conspiracy to promote the game in America ahead of the 1994 World Cup to be held in the States –depending on whom you believe. The 2002 team was impressive in reaching the quarter-final and only barely losing to a fortunate Germany side. And though America was eliminated in the first round of 2006, one must remember they were in the Group of Death in that tournament, with the three other teams all in the top 10 of FIFA world rankings. The US also put in a respectable performance to draw with eventual Champions Italy.
Today, America’s top players are respectable players on the world stage. Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jonathan Spector, DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann all play in top European leagues and perform well. Dempsey, in particular, has been excellent with Fulham.
As more and more young Americans continue to play the game, especially young boys, things should continue to improve in the future. American football can also be encouraged by the prospect of being able to lure the best young stars from around Latin America and the Caribbean to come play for the USA and get the nationality. Jozy Altidore, an exciting young talent, is a Haitian who came to America to play football and took the US nationality.
Further, we must remember America is a country of 300 million people. In football, the bigger the country’s population, the more likely you are to field a stronger team. Brazil is the world’s best because it has three times the population of any other football-crazed country. As more and more Americans play, more and more exciting talents will emerge.
America is also a very rich country, which means a lot of people can spend a lot of money on training, coaching, equipment and the like. This can only help.
Because of all of this, I personally expect America to continue to improve. I have even placed a bet with a skeptical American friend that America will win one of the five next World Cups.
There is, however, a lot to suggest that I might lose this bet.
Firstly, whereas the game has succeeded in attracting a mass number of players, it has failed in attracting viewers. The MLS, America’s awful “top” league, is a terrible spectacle that struggles to draw viewers. The games are awful, the amount of talent is very little, and the baseball-isation of the game is an insult to football purists like myself. The MLS is not a competitive sport. It is organized in the American “franchise” system, which works well for made-for-TV sports like Gridiron, but will strangle a competitive sport like football.
The beauty of football is in its competitiveness and unpredictability. A football game is not watchable if the outcome doesn’t matter. Just think of the awful first round Champions League matches between the top European sides and the minnows who make up the numbers. No one bothers watch these games because they are not competitive. The same could be said of the entire MLS season. The teams play each other four times in the “regular season”, and then the eight highest-ranked teams from 14 advance to the play-offs. The good teams will early-on seal qualification and can afford to lose many matches, and the bad teams will be out of it and will not bother with many matches. This effectively means that the vast majority of “regular season” matches do not matter at all. To then determine the league based on a play-off system is an insult to the game. A league champion should win the title based on their form all year long, and not in some play-off games.
Since the league is run as a franchise system, the uncompetitive cabal that controls the teams has it in its interest to close out competition from other teams entering the league, and so there is no relegation or promotion in the league. And so most teams have nothing to play for most the season. There are many minor leagues across the country, and the game would benefit immensely from doing what every other country in the world does with its football league: opening up competition to everyone through promotion and relegation. Potential success is unlimited for a small team that does well, and the potential failure is unlimited for a good team that does badly. The result would be a highly competitive league system where only the best survive. Eliminate relegation and promotion, and you end up with awful teams phoning in their performances when their owners would rather see them lose so they can get a better “draft pick”—another American monstrosity deforming the game.
The result of this is an anemic league with half-empty stadia and an undedicated fanbase that actually excludes a lot of real football fans. The American “Eurosnob” fan is an outcome of this: Americans who like the game but only follow European leagues, not the MLS. While these fans are the object of derision of MLS fans, there is no denying they have a point. In five years in America, I never was tempted to watch an MLS game, and would instead wake up in ungodly hours to watch European games.
The US football authorities have tried to succeed by turning football into an American sport, which has killed the beauty of the game. If football is to succeed, it will succeed as it has succeeded the world over: a competitive and open game that captivates everyone.
Another byproduct of the way football is played in America is that there are very low wages for players. Every team has a “salary cap”—another American monstrosity that makes every team pay a few players very highly, but pay a pittance to the rest of the players. It is common to find MLS players earning $40,000 a year, playing next to David Beckham who earns $40million a year. This is not a healthy way to build a league.
This failure of football as a spectator sport is very important because it is the major hindrance to the development of American players and the national team. While America has produced plenty of decent players, it has not produced any great players yet. The reason, as any American will tell you, is that all the elite athletes in America would rather play baseball, basketball or gridiron, because the amount of money they could make in these games is enormous compared to the money they could make playing in the MLS. Why train day-and-night to become a professional football player and earn very little in the MLS when you can instead train for basketball, baseball or gridiron and make many millions in their leagues.
Had the US had a proper football league, it would attract a much larger fanbase and teams would compete strongly with each other by paying highly for superstar players. The league would be competitive and Americans would be drawn to it. It would be good for the players, good for the fans, good for the national team and good for football itself to see so many Americans play it. It would, however, be bad for the cabal of ‘franchises’ that currently controls the game. Since they control the game, don’t expect things to change much anytime soon. And for as long as the MLS continues to try to sell football as baseball to Americans, expect this mediocrity to continue.
Nonetheless, the Americans have a decent team that has been improving over the past few years. The level of the current team, however, remains a bit of a mystery. They did not do well in the qualifying rounds and at times faced the prospect of failing to qualify for the World Cup. This is particularly bad news when you take into account that the Americans compete in the CONCACAF region, by far the easiest one from which to qualify—basically an open invitation to Mexico and the US.
The US’s best players play in England. Clint Dempsey has been excellent for Fulham recently and I rate him as America’s best player. Tim Howard in goal is a reliable and solid and has several years’ experience playing in the Premier League. Jozy Altidore is only 19, but has shown a lot of promise and played regularly for Hull City in England. Landon Donovan, perhaps the best known American player, has just had a successful loan spell at Everton. Oguchi Onyewu is a solid defender who has just made a big move to AC Milan, but has failed to play all season because of injury. He should be fit to start the World Cup, though.
The USA’s best strength is its players fitness. One advantage of being the richest country in the world is that sports science has advanced there beyond other countries. Players’ physical training and conditioning has always been impressive, and American players, even on their worst days, will put in physically strong performances. This should stand the Americans in good stead against most teams, particularly those whose fitness levels are low–Slovenia and Algeria need to be wary of this.
The US team will be really up for their opening match against England. There is a healthy American hatred of English football driving them, borne out of an inferiority complex because of England’s superlative achievements in the game, and its superior, proper, football league. The Americans would love nothing better than to have their MLS players beat the Premier League’s A-list stars.
They do, of course, have precedent in this regard. America perhaps caused the greatest upset in World Cup history when they defeated England in 1950. England, until then, had never bothered participate in the World Cup. Exhibiting the sort of smug colonialist mentality many Americans would love to have, the English had long derided the international game as something lesser than the proper real English game played by full-blooded Englishmen. England had no reason to compete in this inferior game where people from the colonies played against pesky Latins. There was even a sense that England would ruin it for the foreigners if they participated and won it easily.
Having then changed their mind and deigned to participate in the 1950 World Cup, the English arrived fully expecting to walk through the tournament. They certainly expected to murder the Americans in their opening match. And yet, the ultimate shock arrived when the English team that had legends like Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen was defeated by a rag-tag bunch of truck drivers, plumbers and other part-timers representing Uncle Sam.
This American team is far better than that one, with many professional players in the best leagues of Europe. And they will be desperately hoping for a similar upset, particularly with the recent optimism in England that Capello’s men could win the World Cup. Closet American football fans, those who love to pretend they don’t like the game, will be watching eagerly, and in case America wins, they will come out of the closet and feel justified in supporting the game. America loves a winner, and if their football team can start beating the best regularly, expect the Americans to rally behind it. Let us hope, however, they don’t win the whole thing, yet, as their fans are likely to then develop an insufferable superiority complex that will make England’s pre-1950 complexes seem mild.