Thursday, January 18, 2007
There is this guy who does commentary on Canal Plus en Español for many Premiership matches, whose job description seems to include reminding audiences, repeatedly, that certain players are unworthy participants in the English game.
Out of professional courtesy (and a desire not to bump into him on the streets of Madrid and get punched in the eye), he will remain nameless.
Admittedly, his negative commentary is largely equal opportunity, a running litany against players and coaches from diverse backgrounds and of varied abilities - but he seems to take special delight in critiquing US players.
Last season, seemingly to our mutual distress, he reported on many, many Fulham matches. His comments on Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride ranged from dismissive to insulting.
Most surprisingly, he couldn't leave them alone, bothering to point out their supposed shortcomings game after game, all the while describing Bocanegra as an import from the Columbus Crew.
By the end of last season, I was watching the games on mute.
Two great things have happened this year: the aforementioned commentator has not been assigned to the Fulham matches I've tuned into, and now to further fuel my enjoyment of soccer played by Yanks in England, Clint Dempsey has joined the Fulham ranks as well.
So now that Dempsey is moved to London (and with Oguchi Onyewu possibly on his way), many are asking why Fulham, of all sides, is becoming such a Yank-magnet.
Is this the beginning of a trend? Have McBride and Bocanegra broken the cultural barrier, paving the way for a near future legion of American soccer stars abroad, and not just at Fulham?
Or will the anti-Yank media pundits keep the ranks disproportionately thin? Will the US player haters continue to keep a good country down?
Okay, fine... the relationship between soccer journalism, print and television alike, and players' career trajectories is debatable.
It would be a stretch to assert that US players are specifically discriminated against in the international soccer media, and a further one to say that this actually limits the number of Yanks abroad.
But something fishy is going on. The proof is in the rosters.
I'm not surprised that Dempsey is going to Fulham. What I can't get my head around is the scarcity of such Yank success stories. Given the number of solid MLS and college-based players in the US, it simply defies belief that so few are given the opportunity to play overseas.
Take MLS. A total of (a really big number - est.) US-born athletes have participated during the league's 11-year history in a capacity some would call "soccer players." This is a professional league with television coverage, websites, a youth development program and concession stands offering colorful, foam novelty fingers.
Many MLS players have a trifecta of advantages when it comes to breaking into the international game.
First of all, 100% of the American MLS'ers are American. You know, real Americans. Consumer-oriented, media-savvy, raised with the expectation that they will be rich and famous while they are still young and beautiful enough to enjoy it. In short: they are motivated.
Second, as I wrote about during the World Cup (gotta focus on the positive), many are college-educated. Think language-requirement. Think endless hours playing FIFA Soccer on their PlayStations. Think literate enough to look up "football" instead of "soccer" on Google and get plugged into the world game from a global perspective.
Messrs Donovan and Pope can prefer to remain stateside all they like, but I'm thinking that most MLS Yanks know that there is a big world of soccer out there, and would like to participate in it.
Finally, they are already professional athletes, accustomed to the demands that entails, and with a work history that can be easily corroborated.
Yes, MLS can make the transfers hard for their bigger stars and UK work permits can be a bear for non-national team regulars, but looking beyond the bigger US names and the Premiership, players and opportunities abound.
So where are the Yanks?
Is it really the media's fault?
Do coaches and team owners, stuck in stereotypes (e.g. Argentine good, American bad), refuse to give US players an honest look?
Probably. But we as a nation must also look inward, critically, to find the seeds of the problem right here at home.
In part, I blame the parents.
In an age when four-year old Brazilians set off youth academy bidding wars at the world's largest clubs, based solely on fuzzy internet videos of their juggling skills, how is it possible that so few industrious US parents attempt to sell their children into soccer servitude?
Are we not a nation of promoters? PT Barnum was a Yank!
This is not to exculpate the Europeans. There are obviously some cultural biases at work.
If not, how can it possibly be that there is only a smattering of Beasleys and Conveys and DeMerits in leagues where the influx of Latin American, African and Eastern European players increases every year to the point where, to give just one example, over 150,000 Ghanaians currently ply their trades in England, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands alone?
(That's actually a real statistic, although, in the interest of full disclosure, some of those individuals may not see a lot of first team action with top flight clubs).
Fine, Ghana is a better soccer player-producing nation than we are. That was recently proven. But bearing in mind the number of young, healthy US players, is it really possible that only six of our guys have ever been allowed to cross international borders in a non-World Cup year? And, of those six, only two made it through customs with a full set of cleats?
(That's actually a slight exaggeration).
Forget Manchester United. Screw Milan. Statistically, even for a talented European professional, it is less likely to wind up on the roster of one of those teams than it would be to, in a freak accident, get elected president of the United States of America.
I'm talking about the Real Betises of the world. They need their players too. Tab Ramos is still remembered fondly in Spain. Mid-table French clubs, bottom-feeders of Serie A...why no Yanks?
Now, I am not one to trade in stereotypes myself, and believe me I am the last one to offer an inflated view of the US contribution to the global scene, soccer-wise and beyond. Years as an expatriate have taught me to look at the average American with a cold, analytical eye even as I celebrate the sophistication, history and charm of world culture.
But let's look at the average, fresh-faced, well scrubbed US soccer prospect versus the typical, hut-dwelling international recruit.
The US player, a varsity All-American from a prestigious liberal arts school, has spent two years at a wholesome MLS team, eating a healthy diet, training hard and volunteering at his local community center.
Meanwhile, his foreign counterpart starts the day by rinsing under a cold water spigot, slathering on some cologne and proceeding to flip idly through the pages of an anti-American newspaper while smoking filter-less cigarettes and drinking very strong coffee out of a tiny cup.
Around nine-ish, feet wrapped in the same newspaper, he meets his comrades in the village square where, after burning an effigy of George W. Bush for a CNN crew, he proceeds to play several hours of soccer, using the charred remains of the effigy as a ball.
Now, who would you rather bring to your mid-table European team: this average "Joe" from Monaco (or Switzerland, or Austria), or a hearty, all-American rookie whose only vices are an excessive love of hamburgers and crude oil?
And yet, so few coaches make the obvious choice.
I have to posit that, even if US players don't promote themselves optimally abroad, the recruitment process is skewed.
National stereotypes, prejudices and good old fashioned envy play a role, buoyed by a media that prefers to look for the next hottest thing on other continents, treating current Yanks abroad as oddities held to a higher standard.
And I suppose our performance at the World Cup didn't help the cause either.
But it helped Dempsey's cause, which brings us back to Fulham, a team that dares to be different, building a small army of Yanks in the land that invented soccer. If you think about it, it is also, in many ways, the land that invented America, only to subsequently invent anti-Americanism (think Revolutionary War).
So there is a lot of history working against a phenomenon like we are seeing at Fulham, yet there it is: as real as Dempsey's rap career. And I am going to enjoy every minute of it, even if I have to keep the volume down on the TV.
And I am also going to do my part to work toward a brighter future. Tonight, in the wee-hours, between bottles, I will go to You Tube, and I will post the grainy cell-phone video of my 20-month-old prodding the remains of a small Dora the Explorer soccer ball.
At this developmental stage, the talent and potential are undeniable, the ego is huge, and outfits are changed up to six times a day to the accompaniment of constant flash bulbs.
I think she would fit in great at Real Madrid.