Four week fans
The United States is caught up in World Cup fever. I am old enough to remember every time the Americans have qualified for the final tournament (what it is officially called by FIFA, the sanctioning body of futbol), and I can only recall the fervor for the beautiful game (as it has been termed by many, especially Brazilians) coming close to this in 1994, when the World Cup was held in the US.
My question is: how many of these new “futbol fans” will follow the sport, at least on a casual basis, after the World Cup wraps up July 13? I can tell you that percentage will be in single digits. I’d bet my bottom dollar many of the people following the World Cup can’t name one Major League Soccer team, and some may not even know MLS exists. They certainly can’t name all 32 countries in the World Cup, and maybe can’t tell you who won in 2010 (Spain). I’m not an expert on futbol in the least, but I know the MLS teams, I know about the Premier League in England, and I can name all the World Cup winners.
I actually watched the World Cup for the first time in 1986. The Americans weren’t in it, but it fascinated me. Thankfully, the Cubs and Braves were on WGN and TBS, because there was NOTHING else on in the world of sports. The USFL folded, the NBA and NHL were over,the NFL was still a month away from training camps, and other than the Cubs and Braves, there was only one Major League Baseball game on per week.
In 1990, the first time the US qualified in 36 years, hardly anybody cared. The matches were not even on a full-time sports network–they were on TNT, part of Ted Turner’s media empire which televised the NBA then and still does, but is better known for dramas like The Closer and Rizzoli and Isles, plus endless reruns of Law and Order. The US matches barely got any play on SportsCenter, and they certainly were nowhere to be found on the nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC. I was between my eighth and ninth grade years at Brother Martin High School, and I watched the World Cup simply because there wasn’t much else on other than Major League Baseball on WGN, TBS and ESPN. The US, predictably, lost all three matches, but played its best against host Italy, a perennial powerhouse. The Azzuri was harshly criticized for “only” defeating the Americans 1-0, especially after the Yanks were destroyed 6-1 in their first match by Czechoslovakia.
The US did a spectacular job of hosting the World Cup in 1994. The opening match in Chicago drew President Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and a galaxy of superstars. Unfortunately, two major stories overshadowed the World Cup: (a) the impending Major League Baseball strike, which would commence that August and wipe out the entire postseason; and (b) O.J. Simpson being charged with the slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ronald Goldman.
Hours after the opening match concluded, Al Cowlings drove the white Ford Bronco at a snail’s pace on Los Angeles freeways, pissing off most of Houston and New York City, whose NBA teams, the Rockets and Knicks, were locked in a tense NBA Finals. Game 5 of that series coincided with the Simpson chase, and NBC opted to put the basketball game in a tiny box in the corner while Tom Brokaw narrated the chase, even though two of the five largest media markets in the US were represented on the hardwood. NBC should have politely declined to cover the chase until the basketball game was over, and instead told viewers to switch to ABC or CBS. Today, that isn’t a problem, because the Simpson chase would have been on MSNBC.
The US made the knockout round in ’94, where they lost to Brazil in a tight match. That finish sent expectations into the exosphere for the 1998 World Cup in France. Instead, the Americans laid a gigantic egg, losing all three group matches, including an embarrassing 2-1 loss in the second match to Iran in a contest which was nowhere near as close as the score. FIFA ranked the uS 32nd–dead last–after the ’98 Cup.
The stinker in France made American fans leery for the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan. That, plus the 13-hour time difference, depressed viewership. Too bad, because the Americans advanced to the quarterfinals before losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to Germany, a match in which the Yanks outplayed Deutschland.
There are going to be watch parties all over the fruited plain Tuesday when the Americans face Belgium (probably). Don’t expect to see the same for the MLS Cup, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, or the UEFA Champions League antyime soon. If you miss it now, you’ll have to wait until 2018.