What the rest of the world knows as football could be about to change for ever
More than 100,000 tickets were sold in Michigan for a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid a week ago. The game was part of a “friendly” tournament that brought together some of the biggest football clubs in the world. In addition to the aforementioned teams, Liverpool, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Roma and Manchester City took part. It was a sporting event that poor countries wouldn’t be able to afford, and was hosted by a nation long known for another type of football entirely. It was unprecedented in the United States, and history could be in the making.
The rising popularity of football in the United States – not the “American” version featuring athletes in body armour and a ball with pointed ends – shouldn’t surprise. The superpower has a few globally renowned footballers and performed well in the just-ended World Cup. America is already a giant in the world of women’s soccer, and a growing army of American kids is kicking rounded balls on an increasing number of pitches across the country. The question now is whether soccer has become popular enough in the United States to trigger a paradigm shift.
It will be a real “game-changer” if the United States becomes a soccer superpower with a soccer-crazed populace.
The country has all it takes to be great at the world’s most popular sport – if it wants to, that is. Money is no obstacle, and neither are technology or other factors like stadiums or transport. And being among the world’s most active users of Internet-enabled gadgets means Americans can join the community of global football fandom with ease.
However, a glance at team rankings tells you that many of the game’s top performers are poorer nations. Brazil, Argentina, Cameroon and Mexico are examples of countries doing well in football because their citizens not only love the sport but also see it as a way out of poverty. While most Americans lack that motivating force, it’s clear they have no shortage of inspiration for sporting success. Though relatively wealthy, the US has no problem producing great athletes in other fields. The country is the world’s Olympic superpower, to begin with. What America is good at – swimming, track and field and basketball, for example – are anything but expensive sports.
The United States currently sits 15th in the Fifa world rankings, which are topped by Germany, followed by Argentina, the Netherlands and Colombia. It’s hot on the heels of Italy, which is in 14th spot, and already above England, ranked 20th. France is 10th and Portugal 11th. Performances at last month’s World Cup played a big role in deciding who is where in the table, but many will argue that the rankings are a fairly accurate reflection of each country’s status in global football.
The game’s traditional powers may find it scary that the United States is sneaking up on them despite its lukewarm love of “soccer” and lack of obsessive fervour among fans. What will happen when the “passion” gets stronger and more kids begin hitting soccer pitches rather than basketball courts and kicking balls instead of swinging bats?
The answer could come sooner than we think.
The world got a taste of things to come last week, when American stadiums were packed to the rafters with fans singing the anthems of globally renowned football clubs.