Despite sport’s popularity, global soccer still lacks American fans

June 21, 2012

Euan Hague

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Editor's Note: The Euro 2012 soccer championships move into the quarterfinals Thursday, and the world's eyes will be glued to the screen. But here, Worldview soccer contributor Euan Hague says that in the U.S., there’s still a surprising gap between the number of soccer players and the number of global soccer fans.

I was in a small town in South Dakota last week, with no internet access or wireless reception. The landscape was flat, the weather hot and dry (until the heat was temporarily broken by 15 minutes of golf-ball sized hail!) and the local newspaper equally arid in its Euro 2012 coverage.

The match schedule was buried deep in the results page, with the names of high school swim meet competitors and summer rodeo info. And the next day, scores were nowhere to be found. It was like this for four days – and I suffered.

I got a glimpse of a USA Today so knew that Ireland was eliminated, and, driving for a couple of blocks in a rental car, heard a snippet of satellite radio that had the TV feed of the Poland v. Czech Republic game. TV on the radio may be a fine rock band but it doesn’t work for soccer! The announcers say surprisingly little about the game in play, other than the occasional player ID.

From such snippets I calculated scenarios and second-guessed line-ups and results. But my wall chart sat untouched, waiting anxiously for updated scores, final group tables and the quarterfinal lineups. Just when I was about to give up, I saw three boys, roughly aged six through ten, playing soccer on a patch of grass across the street. I watched for a while as one of them bamboozled his friends, performing step-overs that Christiano Ronaldo would have been proud of.

I walked over to chat with them. The oldest one said he was playing at state-level; he played recent tournaments in Fargo, Rapid City and Sioux Falls, and was looking forward to away games in Minnesota to play teams from Germany and Japan. Recognizing a fellow soccer enthusiast, I asked, “What do you think of the Euros so far?” He looked at me and asked in reply, “How is Manchester United doing?”

Maybe this is just small town South Dakota. But I’ve noticed there’s often a disconnect between the mass phenomenon of youth soccer in the U.S. and the global game. When I was as old as these kids, I watched the 1978 World Cup on TV and found the countries in an atlas. Such exposure is still helpful – I met a Polish guy back in Chicago today and we reminisced about players like Grzegorz Lato and Zbigniew Boniek.

Friends who coach high school kids tell me their players come to practice performing moves they watched on YouTube the night before, and have an encyclopedic knowledge of current players. But those kids tend to be from urban areas, often with greater access to global media and more parental resources. But here, in rural South Dakota, a ten-year-old kid was playing like Ronaldo and asking me about Manchester United.

I bet a decade ago I wouldn’t even have been able to have that conversation. The New York Times recently argued that the U.S. has finally awakened to soccer. That may well be true, but the connections to the global game, I would suggest, are still primarily metropolitan, strongest in places like Chicago, where, after four days away, I was able to get online and catch up on Euro 2012, watching the action on the computer – something else that was not possible just a few years ago.

Thursday on Worldview

DePaul University professor Euan Hague and Michael Madero, assistant coach for the University of Chicago’s men’s soccer team, share their predictions for the upcoming Euro Cup matches. Plus, Jakub Parusinski, staff writer for the Kyiv Post, tells us how soccer fans in Ukraine and Poland have been behaving at the matches.

Join in the conversation: Why do you think your team will take the championship? Call us at 312-923-9239.