CAN US SOCCER GRIP US?
The World Cup is over. Weeks have passed since team USA departed South Africa, perhaps with a wistful sense of what might have been, but hopeful nonetheless for the future.
The emotion of Landon Donovan's 91st minute goal vs. Algeria, the blind rage at referees run amok against Slovenia, the disappointment when Jozy Altidores sliding shot trickled wide against Ghana, all begin to fade, to give way to a happy nostalgia and a well-earned summer break.
Soccer becomes, for a brief period, secondary.
Unless you live in Spain. Which I do, as my still-celebrating wife, daughter and co-workers could attest to if their voices ever came back.
Granted, they would still have a tough time making themselves audible over their compatriots' continuing cries of "Viva Espaņa" and the deranged laughter of impromptu bathers in the country's countless public fountains.
I'm jealous, of course, but not so much of the victory as of the national obsession, of the prominent role soccer plays in the lives of a startlingly large percentage of the population.
The Spanish have a phrase that translates as: "Comparisons are odious". It makes sense, even if in light of their victory it sounds a lot like gloating. But it is inevitable to compare our soccer culture to that of the best team in the world, especially when that culture is gathering by the millions in front of my house until five in the morning to sing round after endless round of: "Illa, illa, Villa maravilla!"
Support for soccer in the US, as evidenced by World Cup viewing audiences and media coverage, is no doubt on the rise.
But even as we debate youth development, the further refinement of a uniquely American style of play, and who the right coach is to lead us into the future, I can't help but feel that an important obstacle remains; a tactical disadvantage against the foreign legions of the soccer-crazed.
I'm probably part of the problem. Exciting as it would have been to watch the games this summer in the company of Yanks, I admit that I still relished the total cultural immersion readily and almost casually on offer in Europe.
People didn't have to be reminded that the World Cup was the most important thing going on, even in countries that hadn't qualified. It was a given.
In a meeting in Helsingborg, Sweden during the Spain-Switzerland match, the game was beamed onto the conference-room screen, providing a frustrating backdrop for the Spanish contingent even as we huddled around a laptop to view a Powerpoint presentation on a decidedly non-soccer related topic.
While watching USA-Algeria in a Mexican restaurant in Paris it took concentration and all my six-words of French to understand the pro-Algerian banter directed at me from owners and patrons alike. Far from being offended, I was invigorated.
How great was it to find a passionate, engaged public in the first air-conditioned bar I happened to wander into? At one table there were even some real Algerians!
Mexicans, Algerians, Parisians and me, all watching the US play soccer and caring about the outcome. I felt way multi-cultural, and above all thankful to be in a part of the world where my soccer-fixation, long-considered an eccentricity or affectation in my home country, was matched by an overwhelming majority.
It's true that soccer is entering the mainstream more and more in the States, and at an inspired pace, but gatherings similar to the one I wandered into in Paris probably won't be the norm at every corner bar in the US anytime soon.
How this impacts the team's play, much less its prospects for the future, is difficult to quantify. It has been commented ad nauseum that top youth talent gravitates toward other sports, inspired in part by the glamor of MLB, the NBA and the NFL (steroids, dog-fighting, long showers with Pau Gasol, respectively), and in part by childhoods spent reenacting greatest hits from those sports as viewed in living-rooms across the country.
Only an increased promotion of the top European leagues is going to convince generations of American kids that a quick path to multimillionaire rock-stardom lies through playing soccer. I'm not talking about the actual games, but of the players themselves. It isn't up to ESPN. It's up to Access Hollywood.
Beckham was a good start. Thierry Henry just landed in New York, and Cristiano Ronaldo allegedly impregnating an American waitress was a stroke of PR genius by the USSF.
Hopefully it is all the beginning of a grand trend. But we can't rely on European soccer playboys and the mass media alone to win this battle. Support for intense, nationwide fandom begins in the home. It's a lesson the Spaniards have learned well.
At a baptism for a friend's son in a small village in Avila, keys were secured to a building called "La Peņa" so I could duck out of the reception to watch the USA lose to Ghana on the only television with satellite signal in the area.
The combination bar, sports club and church is as good a spot as I can imagine for accommodating a broad cross-section of fans, from those who pray for inspiration to those attempting to drink their team to victory.
Seating is in pews, lined up in front of a makeshift altar with a 42" flat-screen hung several feet above. The symbolism couldn't be more apt.
That I prioritized seeing the game over attending the baptism post-party was considered normal by the other attendees, who sent encouraging text messages throughout. There would be other sacraments, but how many times was the US going to make it past the opening round? Truly, here was a country where a soccer fan could be a soccer fan.
In these types of experiences it is painfully clear just how much work we have cut out for ourselves to compete as a fan culture, and it isn't like the rest of the world is going to slow down and wait for us to catch up.
But odious comparisons aren't going to get us anywhere. Sure, it is only a fraction of the US population that takes to the streets in celebration after an important game.
But the cameras are rolling when they do, and people watching at home are wondering what they might be missing. Maybe not the noblest of motivations to get involved, but if it keeps the fan base growing, I'll take it.
I'm convinced we are on the right path, and that a moment of acceleration will arrive, well before Cristiano's son, in a shock decision, seeks out his birth-mother, live on all major networks, to tell her he wants to play for the US.
It could come through the growth of MLS, through a miracle run in 2014, or through a more gradual cultural shift building cumulatively to a tipping point, but mark my words: sooner or later, soccer will grip the hearts and minds of our nation.
When that day comes, I may still be kept up all night by the sounds of Spanish celebration, but I will endure them without envy, comforted in the knowledge that on other nights, in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston or New York, some European expatriate has stood at his window, sleepless, shaking his fist in silent rage at those damn American soccer fans and their incessant, unbridled, ear-shattering love of the game.