Unless you’ve been living on a desert island (and if you are, might we suggest staying there, it’s not safe over here) then you’re probably aware the World Cup is underway. While most countries are celebrating and cheering for their home teams, it’s hard to not feel like something just seems to be missing this time around…Oh right, it’s us! We’re the ones missing.
The irony of the United States not making it to Russia, of all places, this year of all years, is quite astounding. I guess our leaders already made enough trips there. And we hear there might even be video tape to prove it. Perhaps we found our new allegiance to Russia too strong to compete. We certainly aren’t weeping over not qualifying for the Coppa del Mondo as much as the Italians probably are, but for over 40 years, since before the Cosmos brought Pelé and other all-stars to our shores, the world has been wondering why soccer just won’t take off in the U.S. Many think it’s because we have our own sports to obsess over, like American Football. We stole the name and changed the game altogether. Except, it’s not really fair to win the title of world champion, as the NFL puts it, when we’re the only ones playing. Where soccer requires improvisation and creativity, American football requires mass.
In our new column, Torry Threadcraft explains the inherent Americanism of the violence and physicality of the sport, he says, “American football is trench warfare, while beautiful in its own right, it’s uniquely grotesque, too American for a modern global audience. In rural and suburban America, finding warm bodies to clog up a ten-yard radius is easy. If you’ve got the measurements, there’s surely a coach around to polish a proverbial lump of coal.” Read The Beautiful Game
It feels odd, but predictable, that we can’t qualify for the sport that the rest of the world plays. We don’t even call it by the same name. It seems like the United States has an insatiable need to be different. Individuality is great, but our cultural elitism is corny at best and harmful at worst. To say our football is better than international futbol is silly. The reason why the MLS isn’t as big as the NFL is not cultural, it is instead institutional.
Threadcraft takes us through the socioeconomic issues that have turned soccer into a sport primarily played by the privileged in America. He says, “One huge factor, in short: poor kids in America--those with roots in America--don’t play soccer. At least, they don’t play for long. The best youth soccer is played in pay-to-play travel leagues, and Major League Soccer doesn’t pay nearly as much as the NBA, MLB, and NFL, let alone leagues overseas.” Turning the development side of the sport of soccer purely into a money making scheme that does no more than benefit the children of the wealthy is an all too familiar theme. When the leagues are pay-to-play, that leaves most kids with no access to the game in their neighborhoods. We can’t advance if we’re not investing in the grassroots youth leagues, because it leaves us with no exceptional future players.
Like it or not, we’re a “melting pot,” so the game, like everything in America, was originally introduced by immigrants. The British actually used to use the term “soccer” until it became a household American word. They were so turned off by this that around 1980 they began to only refer to their sport as football in an effort to distance themselves from the United States, which we think is pretty harsh, but also, fair enough. You know how those darn Brits can be, always Brexiting!
These days it’s no longer British influence on the sport, but that of Latin America, a culture the powers that be refuse to fully embrace. It’s hard to pick up on their soccer skills when the government is busy tearing their families apart. The United States discriminatory institutions excludes so many people that we’re limiting ourselves. Even in American football, as Threadcraft points out, “The majority of the NFL league comes from low-income communities.”
Yet, when players like Colin Kaepernick or the entire Philadelphia Eagles organization defend their communities, they’re shunned. The executives of the NFL turn their backs on them and act like owning the team means owning the players. America cannot continue to ignore and dismiss the very communities our athletes come from. And if we ever want to truly compete in the game that brings the whole wide world to the field – soccer -- then we need to embrace our diverse society and make the sport more accessible.
That being said, efforts have been made in the past to gain more national attention to the MLS. In true American fashion, we threw money at the problem, slapped a celebrity on it, and hoped it’d become popular. Except soccer isn’t a red carpet, so getting David Beckham in the lineup may have temporarily filled the stands a bit more in Los Angeles, but we need to work from the bottom up, and that starts at the grassroots level. It’s not so much the MLS that needs fixing, but the discriminatory and expensive system behind the youth leagues.
The bigger picture, as Threadcraft explains, is that by not participating in the world's sport we are continually missing out on a chance at cultural exchange; at partaking in the conversation. And during a time when the United States is increasingly internally divided and isolated from the rest of the world, this loss feels demoralizing, even if it is just a game.
In 1967, a year before the first professional soccer league (the North American Soccer League) in the United States was founded, there were only 100,000 people actively playing soccer in the country. As a result, half-empty stadiums and part time players defined the first years of the league.
The New York Cosmos was one such team whose games were poorly attended, and were constantly being shuttled from one stadium to another in search of somewhere to play. Moreover, the lack of success of the Cosmos in a city with such a large immigrant population, who theoretically cared about soccer, cast doubt on whether the sport was even viable in the United States. In a Hail Mary play to increase attendance, and the validity of soccer nationwide, in 1975 the Cosmos signed Brazilian soccer phenomenon Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé.
While today, soccer has many stars, in the ‘70’s Pelé was the star. Steve Ross, co-owner of the Cosmos, signed him to the team and he became the highest paid athlete in the world. The impact was felt immediately. Prior to his arrival, tickets to games were given out for free at fast food chains, with fewer than 6,000 people in attendance. After, more than 22,000 fans packed the stands, with 50,000 people left outside the stadium hoping to get in, and a TV audience of over a million.
Pelé made the New York Cosmos a global name. Simply working for the team, much less being a player, was enough to garner celebrity status akin to Andy Warhol. However, Pelé was just the first star the Cosmos signed and many more followed. The German soccer phenomenon Franz Beckenbauer, the Italian Giorgio Chinaglia, and the Brazilian Carlos Alberto soon joined the team, leading to a star-studded line up.
However, this success was both deceptive and short-lived. Though ticket sales had tripled under Pelé, they could never outpace the cost of the salaries of the stars that they were bringing in to bolster the team. And eventually, when Pelé retired (again), ticket sales and TV viewership began trending downward. Over the course of the next few years, owners in the league found themselves unable to keep up with costs of fielding a team until, in 1984, only nine teams were actively competing. The fate of the Cosmos, the once world renown team, was no better.
By 1985, the team had essentially just become a brand name for a youth soccer camp and was no longer fielding players for games. Over the years, various players, owners, and managers have attempted to revive the team, and bring the Cosmos back to the glory they experienced over those few beautiful years in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.