Americans shrug off the Mickey Mouse jibes to assert rising global strength
Tired of being patronised, Americans see the England game as a chance to prove they are a serious force
Friday 11 June 2010
The United States' World Cup effort has taken over the cover of this week's Time magazine – proof, if it were really needed, that the country which has sold more tickets to the finals than any other nation bar the hosts and where more money has been paid out for the TV rights than in any other place on earth, is fixated. But it is the tenor of of the accompanying essay, rather than the iconic cover image, which reveals most about the nation's relationship with the game that, to general sniggering from the back, it still calls soccer.
"Yes soccer is America's Game," reads the headline to a piece in which Bill Saporito gets straight to grips with the elephant in the room. "Please stop lecturing us," he writes. "Americans call it soccer because there's a perfectly great sport here already called football. So don't get your football knickers in a twist about it. Soccer it is."
The tone is reflective of an unmistakable mood among many here in the American camp, who are quite frankly irritated by the patronising idea, as they see it, that the US – Confederations Cup finalists last autumn after vanquishing a Spanish team who had not lost for two years – are somehow still the ingénues; a nation still waiting for the sport to take off. "There are still articles across the Atlantic which say MLS [Major League Soccer] is a good pub team," Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) said yesterday. "I've not seen 'Mickey Mouse' football but Disney's a very good partner so we're willing to help them."
Disney is part of a vast panoply of commercial partners around soccer, a sport that now trails only basketball for the number of participants in the US. The size of crowds that have been drawn to their warm-up games reveals how far the nation has travelled in a short time. Almost 55,000 watched the national team play Turkey in a friendly in Philadelphia on 29 May.
The MLS might remain a distance off Premier League – or even Bundesliga – standard, but it has commanded average attendances in 2010 of 16,354, which would be a respectable level for most Championship clubs in Britain. The average pales by comparison with the extraordinary success last season of the new Seattle Sounders FC, whose founding was another totemic moment in the history of US soccer, with average attendances of 30,943.
The TV money has flooded in. The $425m (£290m) paid out by ESPN and the powerful Spanish-language broadcaster Univision for the TV rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup tournaments – the 2002 rights, by contrast, went for $40m – are part of an investment that has seen three dedicated soccer channels on cable, with Visa, McDonald's and Coca-Cola investing in huge World Cup campaigns. ESPN's promotional campaign for the World Cup is the largest it has ever undertaken for any sport – round or oval ball.
The European clubs are the biggest draw, with vast crowds attracted to exhibition games from touring sides, who will include Manchesters City and United and Tottenham this summer. Barcelona v Galaxy attracted 94,000. Last month the Fox network moved the baseball game between New York Yankees and the New York Mets from afternoon to evening to accommodate live coverage of the Champions League final between Internazionale and Bayern Munich. MLS continues to sign stars to keep up : Thierry Henry is expected to follow David Beckham and Seattle's Freddie Ljungberg this summer.
All this for a league that has only been in existence for 15 years and just three years ago was actually paying broadcasters to carry its games, rather than take the substantial sums it now receives. Yet no game has resonated through the US in the way that tomorrow evening's does, with victory over England capable of delivering greater momentum to the game's development than any single moment since the hosting of the 1994 finals. "I think it probably is the most anticipated game of all time for us," Gulati said. "The watercooler talk is certainly greater than anything I've ever seen. [Coach] Bob [Bradley] might pick a few different teams to play first from an onfield perspective but from my point of view it's the ideal game."
The prime concern for England, of course, is whether the game's grassroots and commercial development has actually been mirrored by the development of a body of players who can do to the nation what they did in 1950, when in such infancy. "We're not used to being second best but I just let the facts speak for themselves," Gulati said. "In 15 years our league has come a long way. When you look back [at the Confederations Cup] last summer and people said 'this team can't play.' But you beat Spain, that hadn't lost in a couple of years,and you take Brazil to the max so I don't know what else we have to do to prove ourselves. I guess part of what else we have to do would be to win on Saturday."
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