Belgium vs United States preview World Cup 2014: High stakes as America falls in love with soccer
Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is pulling in crowds and TV viewers – and Fifa is taking notice
It is nearly 40 years since Phil Woosnam, the ebullient commissioner of the North American Soccer League, proclaimed the United States would become “the centre of world soccer” by the mid-1980s. The former Welsh international’s confidence was fuelled by the sight of 70,000 spectators cheering on Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto in a league that also featured Bobby Moore, George Best and Eusebio.
It did not quite work out like that. NASL went bust in 1984, the stars and the crowds having long deserted it. America, with its well-established, largely endemic sports was not, it seemed fertile ground. But maybe Woosnam just had his dates wrong. Today Soldier Field, the 61,500-capacity home of NFL franchise the Chicago Bears, will host “a viewing party” for the United States’ World Cup last-16 tie with Belgium.
Support for Jürgen Klinsmann’s side has outgrown the previous venue, which attracted 20,000. Television viewing figures for that match were 24.7 million, which even turned heads in a land where networks have issues with a sport that runs 45 minutes with- out an (advertising) break.
There is even a national debate, with right-wing shock-columnist Ann Coulter (a US version of Melanie Phillips) describing America’s new infatuation with soccer as “a sign of the nation’s moral decay” and accusing the sport of being “socialist”. On the other side of the political spectrum President Barack Obama admits to scheduling meetings around matches.
American soccer fans of long standing have even put aside concern over Klinsmann bolstering his squad with Germans of American parentage, and blaming the standard of NASL’s successor, Major League Soccer. Klinsmann has also adapted. Having been criticised for suggesting, pre-tournament, that it was “unrealistic” for the US “to be talking about winning the World Cup”, he has told the players to change their families’ flights until after the final.
Klinsmann’s first assessment is probably right, but there are global implications in their progress. While Woosnam’s prediction is unlikely ever to come true, MLS could become a destination for major talent, and this time not necessarily superannuated. MLS already attracts higher average gates than the Brazilian league, is closing on France’s Ligue 1, and continues to expand. Manchester City’s New York franchise starts next summer and David Beckham is still hoping to launch in Miami.
Many teams are in soccer-specific stadiums, rather than NFL or baseball grounds, and so find it easier to attract players, fans and TV companies. Televised soccer is growing and if MLS, a summer league, can get away with incorporating the “drinks breaks” allowed in Brazil, the networks’ interest will grow. Add global sponsorship and suddenly the US looks more attractive for players.
American success could be significant in football politics too. Had Qatar not won the bidding to host the 2022 World Cup it would probably have gone to the United States. The 1994 tournament, despite taking place in a country which at the time was not interested in soccer, attracted higher average and cumulative World Cup crowds than any before or since. A 2022 finals, in a country that had switched on to soccer, will garner Fifa a fortune even by its standards, and get the governing body out of a never-ending scandal. There is a lot at stake in Salvador tonight.
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