By Derek Rosenfeld
As Germany celebrates the ecstasy of a World Cup victory and Argentina sheds tears at lost history within its grasp, the United States, unsurprisingly, sat at home watching another World Cup final from home after a valiant but hit-and-miss effort during the world’s most popular competitive sports tournament.
Which begs the question: Why does the country with the most athletes on Earth consistently fail at the world’s most popular sport? For anyone who actually lives in the United States, the answer is simple, yet multifaceted.
Before the start of the tournament, most soccer pundits felt that the U.S. team would have a difficult time making it out of its group, which pitted them against quality opponents such as Ghana, Portugal, and eventual champion Germany. After an exciting win against Ghana and a heartbreaking tie against Portugal, the U.S. indeed defied most predicitions, including those of former U.S. star Alexi Lalas, and advanced out of its group and into the knockout stages, eventually losing 2-1 in extra time to a tough Belgian team, but not without a historic effort from goalie and New Jersey native Tim Howard (right), who set a World Cup record with an astounding 16 saves, the most recorded in World Cup play since it became a statistic more than 50 years ago.
To the rest of the English-speaking world, soccer is football; to the Spanish-speaking world, it’s fútbol. It’s David Beckham, Lionel Messi (photo 1), and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s Pelé (photo 2), Diego Maradona, and Zinedine Zidane.
In the United States, football is Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Jim Brown. It’s Tom Landry, Joe Montana, and John Elway. In other words, two completely different sports.
What some in the U.S. may not know is how influential the form and rules of soccer has been on “American” football—or “gridiron” in other countries—the most popular sport in the country and still the most consistently attended sporting event in the world. When the sport was beginning to take shape in the late 19th century, several rules first from soccer and later from rugby were incorporated into its playing.
Although details are sketchy, the first notion and form of the game of soccer/football being played was in ancient Greece; a game called Episkyros (right).
Another similar-style game called Cuju (photo 3) was played in 2nd-3rd century B.C. China, and is recognized by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) as being the first acknowledged written evidence of the game because participants were not allowed to use their hands. Later accounts have found similar-style games being played in the convening centuries by Inuits of Greenland, the Aborigines of Australia, and tribes in New Zealand.
(3) One Hundred Children in the Long Spring by artist Su Hanchen depicting a game of Cuju.
The United States has, in many ways, in its ascendancy, become a place of many choices. Consider that it is the richest country in world history, and then consider all the forms of entertainment and leisure it has at its disposal and what that brings; the number of things an American can occupy his or her time with is staggering. Now, think about how that relates to the world of athletics. The term “Big 4” (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) really only applies to the U.S., and it has stretched thin the great athletic talent it has at its disposal. It is one of the few countries on the planet where the best athletes have such a vast array of sports in which they can earn potential mega-million-dollar livings. In addition, professional sports have become so lucrative that the talent pools for each sport have never been so deep.
And, as is always the case in the U.S., the perceived lack of marketing and advertising dollars networks feel they would lose based on an increase in soccer coverage has always scared them away; this is generally because, unlike the Big 4, the clock never stops, and breaks are only taken for halftime and, if regulation ends in a tie, “extra time.” And where would a sporting event be without its influx of car and beer commercials???
Yes, Americans are phobic to the lack of scoring, as if low-scoring sporting events equate to “boring.” However, because goals are generally rare during matches, the heightened anticipation of each score and the joy and excitement it brings often negates the concept of any match being boring.
That being said, one must also consider the economics of many other countries of the world; they are not as rich as the U.S., and perhaps not as willing to attempt to play other sports which require greater funds to participate. Soccer may be the easiest sport in the world for the poor to play; all that is required is a ball. The same can be said for basketball and American football, but to play professionally, one usually needs to have certain physical requirements such as height and weight to play at higher levels. The aforementioned Argentina’s Messi, for example, currently considered the world’s best player and, to some, the greatest ever, stands at just 5’7” and weighs just 145 pounds. Similarly, fellow countryman and another contender for title of greatest footballer ever, Diego Maradona, stood at just 5’5½”. Pelé, perhaps the most popular and best footballer of all time, was just 5’8”.
So it is that, generally, you will consistently see many countries’ best athletes playing soccer. And, those countries rarely collectively compete well in other sports as a result. Imagine a U.S. team where, say, speedy athletes like the Cincinnati Reds Outfielder Billy Hamilton, NFL Running Back Chris Johnson, or the NBA’s Derrick Rose or LeBron James decided to take their skills to the pitch instead of their current sports? The landscape of world soccer may look drastically different.
In part 2, I will look at Major League Soccer’s place in the sport and offer a former Serbian-American soccer player’s take on how the rest of the world views U.S. soccer and how to rectify its lack of popularity.
Photos found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of, from top to bottom and left to right, Steve Evans, Erik Drost, Christopher Johnson, Bonkers, Gun Powder Ma, and public domain.
Special thanks to Josef Jeremijan for help with this article.
Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He has coached baseball at the collegiate level for nine seasons, including stints at New Jersey’s Bloomfield College, Bergen Community College, and Ramapo College. He has also been an infielder in several highly competetive semipro baseball leagues throughout the New York tri-state area.
During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor of art’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.