Op-Ed

Why America and soccer are still destined for each other

Jack Warner got his revenge. In 2015, the international soccer chieftain was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for racketeering and money laundering. On Tuesday, he reacted to his nation of Trinidad and Tobago’s surprising victory over the U.S. men’s national team by calling it the “happiest day of my life.”

Trinidad and Tobago’s 2-1 win, coupled with results in two other matches played simultaneously in Central America, knocked the United States out of next summer’s World Cup in Russia. It will be the first World Cup since 1986 that doesn’t feature the United States as one of the men’s teams representing CONCACAF, the confederation of North American, Central American and Caribbean nations that Warner is alleged to have ruled so corruptly from 1990 until 2011.

The failure to qualify derails what had been the prevailing narrative of inevitable and irreversible American ascendancy. Once a laughingstock in world soccer (we didn’t attend a single World Cup between 1950 and 1990), the U.S. had become in recent decades one of two regional powers, along with Mexico. American fans had come to see World Cup qualification as a birthright and were more likely to debate when we’d win our first tournament than to sweat the tedious qualifying process.

And yet we failed, which at least provides an opportunity to take stock of our country’s perplexing and peculiar relationship with the world’s most popular sport.

Sport is the one aspect of global popular culture not dominated by the United States. What binds the world together are American music, American movies, our language — and soccer. Our games have followings outside our borders, sure, but they’re paltry compared with soccer’s. Cristiano Ronaldo has three times more Instagram followers than LeBron James.

Meanwhile, though played by more American kids than any other sport, soccer can’t shake its foreign taint. In a nation so accustomed to winning, the attitude of many sports fans not yet sold on soccer has evolved over the years from an adamant “no way am I following that boring game” to a grudging “OK, fine, show me we can win, and I’ll get on board.” On that score, the 11 U.S. men on that waterlogged Trinidadian field Tuesday night faced an unbearable burden that should not be placed on them.

The rest of the world was probably made giddy by the loss. Warner had his own churlish reasons for saying that “nobody in CONCACAF likes the U.S.” as part of his celebratory remarks, but it’s also true that many fans across the world (if not commercial sponsors with a vested interest in growing revenue) were pleased to see the U.S. fail to qualify for Russia. We won’t be beating the world at their game, at least not yet.

America’s professional basketball, football and baseball leagues will, of course, tell you that the great global contest isn’t the one for soccer supremacy, but the cultural and business effort to chip away at soccer’s market share by expanding the reach of our own sports. The NBA in particular has done an impressive job of growing its overseas fan base.

But soccer will remain the global sport for the foreseeable future, and one unheralded development — amid all the consternation of how Americans are doing on the field — is the quiet off-field encroachment of U.S. interests.

It’s nothing new that American multinationals like Coca-Cola, Visa and Nike are stakeholders in global soccer; more novel is the fact that Americans are now acquiring direct ownership stakes in the sport. Arguably the three most iconic English clubs in what has become the most followed domestic sports league in the world — Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal — are controlled by American investors, who also own, respectively, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Rams.

The Department of Justice’s 2015 sweeping indictment of more than a dozen mandarins of the world’s sport, including Warner, was another milestone in the off-field Americanization of soccer, one that shocked the rest of the world. Vladimir Putin complained at the time that “the U.S.A. definitely has nothing to do with this,” and called the prosecutions “yet another obvious attempt to spread their jurisdiction to other countries.”

Russia’s leader might as well have said, “Why don’t you just stick to your games, and leave soccer to us?” He’ll get his wish at his own World Cup, but it likely will be a temporary respite. For FIFA, the sport’s governing body, the U.S. is one of the two emerging soccer markets that represent the largest financial upside for its marquee tournament. (The other is China, another nation that failed to make the roster of 32 teams headed to Russia.) And given our sheer numbers, our demographics and our organizational prowess at the youth level, eventual success seems likely, regardless of whether American audiences really care.

Despite Tuesday’s loss, Americans and soccer are still destined for each other, over the long haul.

Andrés Martinez is a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, a former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and a lifelong fútbol fan.

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