In truth many people reading this post are new to World Cup fever. Growing up with a European father, I was exposed to the cup at a young age – I recall watching the Germany – Argentina final in 1986 and being truly amazed by the artistry of Diego Maradona (although I was rooting for the Mannschaft). Despite this early exposure, compared to my continental cousins, my relationship to international soccer was pretty remote. I recall watching the 1998 world cup in Germany, and after two painful losses to Germany and Iran, being consoled by my extended family, and frankly shocking them by explaining to them that I didn’t really follow the US side.
In fact if you ask most US Soccer fans (just look for the guy inexplicably wearing a scarf in 90 degree weather) they will generally tell you that international soccer is not the real game – its club matches that matter. Maybe that’s true, but for me soccer will always mean the World Cup. When you think about it, it’s a truly extraordinary event. It pits a great number of the worlds nations against each other (in a sport they truly enjoy) on an equal field of play where a small nation like Uruguay can have more cups than a vast nation like the United States (whose best finish was 3rd in the first cup in 1930), or its former colonial master Spain (the defending champions).
All this being said, Soccer has come of age in the United States. People genuinely follow the national team (USMNT), a fact best typified by the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Landon Donovan from the tournament squad. However, for the American soccer fan, some education is likely in order. Sure, we all played AYSO as kids, but in the rest of the world, it’s not a game of orange slices and Gatorade. This is typified by what I consider the best available documentary for the casual American fan of soccer (or the Drug War), The Two Escobars. Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, this film was a part of the original season of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. It tells the story of Andres Escobar, a Columbian soccer star, and Pablo Escobar, perhaps the most famous Columbian Narco of the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s a documentary that skillfully shows the relationship between power and futbol in Columbia, and how the war on drugs changed the course of the 1994 world cup. This date is significant because the 1994 cup was hosted by the United States, and really marks the rebirth of soccer in North America. Escobars is a film that deals with complicated morality, and the unique place that sport plays in national identity. For the American viewer, it shows just how deadly serious the beautiful game can be for many fans and athletes.
ESPN has offered a series in preparation for this year’s world cup entitled “Inside: US Soccer’s March to Brazil” a series that takes the viewer through the US national teams preparation for the cup. Fairly standard fare for fans of series like “Hard Knocks”, it does offer the chance to get to know the individual personalities on the team. In some ways this is quite useful for most Americans fans because soccer players tend to have a very low profile in the United States. The aforementioned Landon Donovan is the all time USMNT leading scorer, and I suspect could walk through any mall in the US without being bothered.
So what should the average American viewer make of documentaries like these, or World Cup coverage in general? I think that 1994 is an important year for more reasons than simply the choice of host country. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the major themes in international relations has been the rapid pace of globalization. We often think of this process solely in terms of wealth and commerce (the rise of powerful multinational corporations or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs ) but it also has a direct impact on popular culture and leisure. Athletes like Andres Escobar and Jurgen Klinsmann (the current coach of the USMNT and German Fussball Legend) changed the US sport landscape in 1994. I remember having to watch most of the 1990 cup in Italy on a Spanish language station (less than ideal as at the time I spoke no Spanish) because I had no other alternatives. Today, ABC has devoted blocks of valuable weekend sports coverage to group games that do not involve or directly affect the American team. ESPN estimates that 20,000 US fans will be in Brazil to support the USMNT, not an insubstantial number considering the remote locations of Americas group matches in Manaus, Natal, and Recife (far from Rio and Sao Paulo), and the largest traveling rooting contingent of any nation. While Soccer may never replace baseball as the national pastime – it’s fast approaching a moment when a great deal of national pride is invested in the national teams performance, and when the US joins the rest of the world in dreaming fondly of hoisting the World Cup.
Max Rieger is a PhD candidate at Purdue University, and avid World Cup fan.