Sunday brings the start of the 22nd World Cup. You know, that soccer tournament played every four years by national teams. Anyway, it’s in Qatar, which most people couldn’t identify on a map, much less knew it existed before recent years. It will end on December 18th with the Final, what will end up the most watched sporting event of the calendar year, or maybe all-time. The United States is back in the tournament for the first time since 2014, and yet the buzz around the World Cup feels about as low as I can remember.
I have theories about why this is.
- This is America, and soccer just isn’t popular here. This argument is probably the most relevant, as time and again we are shown just how little Americans (in general) care about the sport. Align that with the schedule for the tournament being right in the heart of the NFL season due to it being played in a desert nation, and its not hard to understand why.
- The United States team isn’t good, so there’s no reason to care. Unlike the Olympics, where American athletes win medals left and right, the World Cup is a place where the USA is all but guaranteed to not even make the semifinals. Sports are something this country does, and does well, so it’s not often to find a game where we’re just so mediocre on a global level. So if there’s no real stakes for the Americans, why should their country tune in?
- The accessibility of sports has changed how we approach event viewing. Back before streaming video or round-the-clock discourse, we were basically told our options for sports every night by the TV. The World Cup typically came in the lull between the end of the NBA/NHL season, the start of the NFL season, and landed on top of the dog days of MLB. Now, especially this time around, we have the ability to curate specifically what sports hold our attention. I have coworkers who watch Formula One every weekend or college basketball of either gender on a nightly basis. It all boils down to an unlikelihood that something outside of the peripheral view would be worthwhile.
- The undeniable human rights abuses. Yeah I’ll admit the migrant labor deaths, plus the nation of Qatar’s heavy anti-LGBTQ policies have soured my excitement for this tournament quite a bit. I’ve struggled with how I can justify giving it attention when I know the corruption and bribery that brought the Cup to Qatar, and the human toll that followed.
What I’ve learned in the last near-three years, sadly, is to try to enjoy what time I’m given. In that, sometimes it means enjoying something that has a bad aftertaste just to bring myself some shred of joy, and something to look forward to. I think all too often I try to do the right thing to the point where I can justify denying just about anything because of some kind of injustice. Frankly, I wish I wasn’t like that, but the answer isn’t in all-out ignorant bliss.
The general American malaise toward the tournament could be any one combination of the items I listed, or any other legitimate reason. Like maybe sports are just not your thing. I get it. But sports are so much more than just adults playing kids’ games for butt-loads of money.
If you have ever read any of my baseball writing, you have an understanding as to how I view sports. It’s not just about the final score or the facts on the stat sheet, but the weight of achieving all of it that matters most. For one game, we’ll see Americans and Iranians shake hands and then play through sweat and blood and dirt. Then they’ll shake hands again, win, lose, or draw. For ninety minutes, men will put their bodies and careers on the line for that extra step of speed on a counter-attack or that extra hamstring stretch for a ball. All of this done in the name of national pride.
I was a soccer denier for many years. I even have tweets to back it up, once posting “I will never understand the appeal of soccer.” I always thought that it was boring and slow. Then I took the time to understand the sport. I gave it an honest chance, and I fell in love. I want to pass that along, even in the slightest.
So if you’ve ever thought the same thing I did years ago, or maybe you’re curious about the sport in any way, I’m here to help.
The first installment will come this weekend. A sort of primer on the sport and simple guide to the tournament. In the coming weeks, I will be using this World Cup to highlight why the game is so great, how to watch for different things, and just what is going on when a player is offside or a free kick is awarded. Or maybe why this guy got ejected from the match and this other guy just got a stern talking-to.
Maybe this will help you understand why the rest of the world lives for this sport. Maybe I’ll be able to convince you to watch the World Cup Final. Maybe I can set you on a course so that four years from now, when the World Cup comes to North America, you’re prepared.
Maybe next time, you’ll care.