Saturday, June 26, 2010

the world cup: wait 'til 2014

Well both of my teams (Italy and USA) are now out, which means it's a bit less exciting for me, but probably more enjoyable. For one thing, since other teams are less in the habit of giving up goals in (say) the first 90 seconds, I can worry a little bit less about showing up on time. And, perhaps, take bathroom breaks without fear of a disaster.

The two teams' fates, while different, had some themes in common. Italy, of course, won the World Cup in 2006, which makes their first-round elimination a bit harder to take. It is less commonly remembered that they suffered early-round debacles in various other tournaments (2002 World Cup, 2004 and 2008 European championships) and were widely considered in decline before the 06 team--on the strength of superhuman goaltending by Gigi Buffon and one well-timed insult to Zinadine Zidane--managed to pull it off. This year's collapse appears to have resulted in equal parts from an aging squad, ill-timed injuries (including one to Buffon), and a general lack of impegno (urgency) on the part of the team and its players. At least Italy avoided the nasty intramural squabbling, not to say racism, which shook the French squad (also first-round losers): ironic in my view, since the immigrants always seemed more French to me than the nominal French people, or were at least the only ones who didn't talk to me in English.

The U.S. is a more complex problem. They played well but seemed constantly to be behind and, perhaps, to be just a bit too earnest, as if they appreciated the words of soccer but perhaps not all of its music. For example, the Americans almost never feigned nonexistent injuries, which are in theory despicable but in practice a rather distinguished art form. (Italy beat Australia in 2006 on the strength of a penalty call that was, well, embellished by the Italian player.) On the other hand, they never gave up on themselves and left with their heads held rather higher than many of their European counterparts: a sort of microcosm of what the world likes and dislikes about Americans, and will probably continue to do so.

Every World Cup brings the question of whether soccer will now break into the top tier of American sports (the Winter Olympics bring the same question for hockey, which is in theory near the top but never quite sure of its status). As much as I love soccer, I remain skeptical. Popular tastes are, as economics say, sticky: Coke and Pepsi have sold roughly the same percentages for fifty years, and the top sports are more or less what they were a generation ago. My instinct is that soccer--like hockey--would be better off expanding incrementally in its natural markets (the northeast, the west coast, all places with lots of yuppies and large immigrant populations) than trying to displace football in the world of Friday Night Lights. Better a small stadium filled with enthusiasts than a large one filled with corporate boxes: even if Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger are in them.


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