Sunday, July 18, 2010

World cup US style

A few minutes after the finals between Spain and Holland ended, I took a walk to the Starbucks in Mt. Kisco, 2 miles down the road.  On my way back, two cars rolled by, festooned with flags and the colors of Spain, music blaring, its waving occupants cheered on by passing motorists.  Remarkably, within an hour of the event, everybody around me was aware of its outcome.  I have been watching World Cups in the US every 4 years since 1986, and this is the first and only time that I have felt its fever starting to grip this nation.

I had an inkling the day the games began, when I travelled to White Plains to run some errands.  There was just that hint of a thinner crowd, not quite ghost town thin, but thin enough to halve your time at the check-out queue.  That was the day South Africa played Mexico.  Then, a few days later, deep into the group plays, I was at the barbershop for a haircut and heard that the shop saw no business during the times that the US was playing.

Soccer has always maintained its popularity among suburban middle class children, buoyed by mothers repulsed by the physical dangers of American football.  But somewhere along the way the sport dissipates, ceasing to hold its magic upon its young practitioners.  Yet, with the steady progress of the home grown Major League Soccer (MLS) league, soccer has begun to emerge. Arguably, the biggest impetus to the game’s visibility in the US in recent years was the addition of David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy roster.  As in a classic Beckham free kick this experiment appeared off target at first--as Beckham sputtered on the field and cavorted off it with his celebrity wife--but then veered back on target, not due to any residual magic in Beckham's legs, but from the media fallout that extracted the maximum visibility for soccer in this country.

A few days after the world cup I was at the check-out counter of a middle eastern deli in Yorktown, speaking to its Mexican waitress.  When Spain played the Dutch, who did she support, I asked her.  “Of course, Spain”, she said, “because we speak the same language.”  What if  Spain had played Argentina in the semis, who would it be I queried, in face of this linguistic parity?  Of course, Argentina--no question about that, she replied, since they were from the Americas.  Aha—so if now Spain played Brazil—where would she hang her hat?  Without hesitation she rooted for Brazil, how could she not support them, she countered.  I went back and relayed this story to my family.  This is just one data point, they argued, not  a trend.

So a couple of days after that, I went to test drive a car and the sales guy was a immigrant from Latin America—an ex-engineer who having lost his job in the downturn of 2008 had changed careers to support himself.  As we breezed along Saw Mill Parkway, I decided to expand my dataset.

Spain vs. Holland” I asked—
"Spain!” he countered.
Spain vs. Argentina?
Argentina!  Are you kidding me?"
Spain vs. Brazil?
They may speak Portuguese my friend, but it would be Brazil—all the way!

As enjoyable as the games were, I relished their coverage.  There were no soap operas in the mold of American style sports programming, no human interest coverage of personal adversities bordering on schadenfreude.  Uncorrupted by timeouts and breaks, no cutaways to sideline interviews of athletes referring to themselves in the third person (prepare for this if video replays arrive). No delayed programming, no jingoism--just the game, expert analysis at half-time by Lalas and company, then back to the game.  At least for now, it appears that the US is adapting to soccer in the style of the rest of the world.

The evening that the US loses in the quarterfinals, outhustled and out-conditioned by Ghana, a team some 30 places behind in the FIFA rankings,  I attend a free concert in Newcastle by Charlie Lagond and his band.  Seated in the auditorium, waiting for the show to start, I hear around me whispered conversations about the game.  A high school boy had come to the show hoping it would lift his spirits, crushed after the loss.  The players were household names by then.  Landon Donovan, perhaps the finest player in the history of US soccer, was a hero, a playmaker, a tireless engine of a man, a visionary.  Perhaps he was good enough to have even made the English team, which had cemented its position in history right next to the US national team of the 2002 basketball world cup.  Folks discussed the lack of a US striker with killer instinct; how twice, the US could have put the game away, but lacked that last bit of moxie.  At first, the team became heros, embraced by an indulgent media.  Then began the process for a more realistic assesment.  Making the quarterfinals was no longer good enough for the US, they ought to have gone further.  This was a team that could just win one game, that too barely.  Was this coach really in the elite category? 

This team did not perform as well as the 2002 squad, yet they possess a certain solidity, like an amorphous mass that is crystallizing but whose effects will take some more time to harden. They lacked the elegance of the Argentinians, or the precision passing of the Europeans.  But they were superbly conditioned, fearless, and played with a workmanlike ethic and an indomitable drive.  You can see traces of these national styles on display even in the low level amateur company leagues here that are stocked with multinational players and in which I participated for several years (where Indian players, I might add, always fell short in the conditioning department, including yours truly).  This US team seemed to have some vision, and the ability for quick and decisive counter-attack.  It is a team that, with a little more added depth, could be one world class striker shy of being an elite team.

Perhaps that might happen in 2014, for the US seems to be committed to this through careful nurturing of local talent.  Barring a few hiccups, such as the ado over Freddy Adu, a boy wonder who at 14 vaulted into the MLS in 2003 with a million dollar plus Nike deal only to fizzle out, most of the development of US players have been gradual rather than mercurial.  Almost all of the players on the US team today grew up in the United States.  While a majority of the starting eleven today play in Europe, most of them reached there following the path of the US divisional college leagues and the MLS, a success story that used measured doses of celebrity players blended with skilled foreigners and local talent, to ratchet forward.  Beckham did his bit for the popularity of the game.  And now it is Thierry Henry’s turn, as he joins the New York Red Bulls at the age of 33.  It is a league that draws its water from wells far and wide, from ageing European superstars, to 22 years olds from FIFA bottom-feeders such as India, when Sunil Chhetri its diminutive Manipuri striker signed up with the Kansas City Wizards.

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