Well, believe it or not, the United States actually briefly caught World Cup fever. When 19 million people in this country tune in to watch anything it’s a big deal - when they do it to watch a game which has historically been relegated to "also ran" status, it’s monumental. And so it was last Saturday when a confluence of good timing, great marketing and a little Yankee good fortune made the United States vs. Ghana the most watched soccer game in U.S. television history. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the over 106 million people that watched the Super Bowl, but it’s more than the 18.4 million that watched the Italy-Brazil World Cup Final and just 300,000 people short of the 19.7 million that watched the brain-numbing American Idol finale. But just when it appeared that the historically tasteless American viewing audience had finally grown an appreciation for the “beautiful game”, our national team was eliminated from the competition and you could almost hear the air being let out of the soccer popularity balloon, leaving only the 3 reasons not to watch the World Cup:
1. It’s not about you and me, it’s about U.S. That’s right, if we can’t play, we’re taking our ball and going home. Sure, it’s a little petulant, but isn’t that what we’re all about? If you don’t have a dog in the fight, the games turn from “must watch” to “might watch”, which inevitably turns to “I think I’ll watch something without that God-awful buzzing noise in the background.” The only thing Americans love more than a winner is an American winner - and with the lack of a “bad guy” in the competition (e.g. Iraq’s team didn’t qualify, Afghanistan doesn’t have one, and the North Koreans are already out) there’s not even someone to root against. The U.S. television audience is the consummate “ugly American”, and will only watch global competitions to the extent there’s at least something American involved. We’re the nation that turned spaghetti into SpaghettiO’s, tacos into Taco Bell and Schezuan cooking into Panda Express. The only thing “international” in most of our lives is the International House of Pancakes. Which is a much more likely place to find your average American next Saturday morning when the only Yanks in South Africa will be the ones in the stands.
2. Where in the world is Carmen Montevideo? It’s not just us being out that makes the remaining Cup unwatchable. All of the recognizable countries are out, and we’re left with countries more obscure than the other member of Wham. Seriously, if you rank the “final 10” in descending order of percentage of American children who can locate it on a world map you’d have:
- Brazil (56% - only because it’s so big)
- Japan (49% - half of the other 51% had it confused... with Hawaii)
- Germany (24% - at least 50% of them got it into Europe)
- Spain (21% - only 8% knew that Spanish and “Mexican” were not different languages)
- Argentina (16% - half of these students referred to it as “the long one”)
- Netherlands (8% - the majority of students thought this country was fictional)
- Portugal (6% - over half of the respondents placed this outside of Europe)
- Uruguay/Paraguay (2% - over a third of kids asked if these were sibling characters from Harry Potter)
- Ghana (less than 1% - American students would be more likely to find the cure for cancer on a map than this nation)
More Americans can correctly spell “irrelevant” than locate most of these countries on the globe. Enough said.
3. Ties, Falls and Idiot Calls. Watching a game with less scoring than my popularity-impaired high school years and with worse acting than a Telemundo soap opera is not my idea of a good time. Seriously, the appeal of sports has always been about the battle of indomitable wills and the bare reality of this conflict. When the rest of the fighting we see is either sanitized to the point of banality or overdone to the point of CGI-enhanced melodrama, sports offers an unpredictable oasis of real drama where potential peril and glory impregnate each passing moment. Unfortunately, the gameplay offered up in this edition of the World Cup has had precious little of any of that. 1-1 ties over 90 minutes are the stuff that naps are made of; the hyperbolic pratfalls taken by these world-class athletes in the hopes of generating ejections and free kicks are laughable even by high-school drama club standards and I’ve seen more capable officiating in a WWE match. This tournament only seems “worldly” in the sense that it’s the kind of sports you could only love if you didn’t have 500 channels of cable, a personal automobile, or running water. I mean, mid-season baseball isn’t normally captivating stuff, but at least I know the first-baseman won’t fall to the ground covering his face and writhing in pain if a base-runner accidentally bumps into him.
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I’ll admit, I was caught up in it. I cheered like a fool when Landon Donovan scored that injury time goal against Algeria and put the U.S. team into the “knockout round” with a very favorable draw and a real shot at the semifinals. I tuned in last Saturday morning with the earliest drink I’ve had in my hand since the morning after my 21st birthday. But losing for second time in as many World Cups to a team whose nickname seemed like an impossibly offensive joke until I saw their national flag (and wondered why we don’t name our team similarly) was just too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for South Africa (and for Africa, in general) who seems to be doing a tremendous job of hosting this global event. But for all the complaining that soccer fans do about our lack of sophistication and corresponding inability to appreciate their “beautiful game” it turns out the reason we’re not watching is because it’s not that beautiful after all.