Football: Soccer in North America remains more of a recreation than public entertainment

At intervals over the past 30 years there has been cause to reflect on attempts to establish football (called soccer) as a major spectator sport in our former transatlantic colonies.

As some of you will probably recall, the breakthrough was thought to have been achieved in 1994 when capacity crowds turned out for the World Cup finals and advances were made on American television.

Some younger colleagues, and even one or two who should have known better, were convinced that this sudden explosion of interest would prove permanent, but long experience suggested that the difficulties involved would again prove insurmountable.

Despite the comparative success of Major League Soccer - average attendances of 14,000 (the recent championship game between DC United of Washington and Colorado Rapids was watched by 57,000) - and the fresh impetus supplied by the USA's qualification last weekend for France '98, nothing much has happened to alter a conclusion I first reached 30 years ago.

In 1967, shortly after taking up a consultancy with Toronto Falcons of the original North American Soccer League, I was required to supply its tough Canadian owner, Joe Peters, with a prognosis.

Before one of our games a falcon perched on the half-way line for publicity purposes, broke loose and disappeared in roughly the direction of Vancouver. This amused Danny Blanchflower, who had been hired as a soccer analyst by CBS. "That just about sums up the game over here," Blanchflower chuckled. My advice to Peters was that he should take Danny seriously.

Considerable progress has been made since those daft days but soccer on the North American continent remains much more of a recreation than public entertainment. Many millions of both genders play the game but their interest is not lasting.

Even allowing for a fall off in baseball's popularity, football can only command a small piece of action and is overwhelmed by the gridiron version and basketball.

In San Diego this week I came across a tale that emphasises the problems faced by those who sermonise on the fact that soccer is less dangerous to play and can accommodate all shapes and sizes.

It is about Shane Walton, who had no passion for the grid-iron game and was considering a soccer scholarship. "Playing football [gridiron] never crossed my mind," he said. "When I came out as a freshman, I'd never even played football, except in the street or in the park. It was a whole different world. I was in good shape because of soccer but I wasn't used to having everything happen so fast and all those people coming after you."

Walton was used to being told that football is a game for girls, otherwise there would not be so many girls playing it. "I love soccer," he said, "but I couldn't be sure where it would take me." Another thing was that Walton had an instinct for the big hit. "Nobody can teach you that," he added. "You either want to or you don't."

Offers of soccer scholarships reached Walton from such schools as Notre Dame, Ohio State and UNC-Charlotte but now he is lost to the game. Bill Lekvold, an assistant football coach at Bishop's School in San Diego, was delighted when Walton, a wide receiver averaging 19.6 yards per catch and second in the county with eight touchdowns, switched. "The kid's an outstanding prospect with a big future," he said.

All Walton's trophies so far are for soccer. "I grew up playing the game," he said, "but the great stars you see on television are so far away."

Walton's ambition suddenly was to prove wrong all the people who considered him too small for football. "They said I shouldn't play football in college, that I should stick to soccer especially because of the scholarships. This a dream I never thought could happen. Now it's within reach."

For Walton's former soccer coach, David Armstrong, the switch is a big disappointment. "It's a shame to lose someone so talented and there is no doubt that he could get a soccer scholarship at any school in the country. We have to bite our tongues a little bit."

Where Walton once imagined playing in the World Cup, he now dreams about turning out in the Super Bowl. It tells you everything.

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