I'm off to Argentina for Saturday's anticipated World Cup qualifier between Argentina and Brazil. It's a clash that resonates through the global game -- the two great South American rivals, producers of an extraordinary quantity of the greatest players ever, going at each other with regional pride at stake.
For Argentina, there's much more involved this time. The Brazilians look comfortably on course to qualify for South Africa. The Argentines do not. This game is key to their campaign. A win and they should be safe, defeat will plunge them into a dogfight. With the fans close to the field in the stadium of Rosario Central, it should be a memorable occasion.
Then, four days later, I'm watching Uruguay against Colombia in Montevideo. One of these teams might make it to South Africa. Both will not. The winner might be able to dream of overtaking Argentina and snatching fourth place. More realistic is the possibility of finishing fifth, and going into the playoff against opponents from CONCACAF.
In the last two World Cup cycles, Uruguay just eked out Colombia to that playoff position, which saw it face the champions of Oceania home and away. Uruguay overcame Australia the first time, and lost the Socceroos the second. As the proud winner of the first-ever World Cup, Uruguay doesn't want to miss out on the competition for the second time running. As the saying famously goes, "Other countries have their history, Uruguay has its football."
All of this stuff about the cultural importance of then game takes me back to
That piece received one of the best responses of anything I have written for SI.com in the past 2½ years, with the highest level of debate -- so I thought it would be interesting to pick out the principal schools of thought.
"In the U.S., outside of the domain of these self-congratulatory insiders, it's a field, not a pitch; a team, not a side; a tying goal, not an equalizer; zero or nothing, not nil, and so on." The foreign terminology, he concludes, "doesn't fly with a majority of sports fans here."
Perhaps a counter-argument is that in a nation of immigrants, today's foreign can be tomorrow's native. That certainly seems to be the line that
He also feels that the game in the U.S. "is growing organically because we finally have the full structure that soccer needs to permeate our vast expanse of a nation. We have spots that explode with growth due to fertilization here and there, but everywhere there's a steady growth. Every kid who plays the game competitively has a favorite player and can name numerous players and teams and probably watched several games on TV this weekend. My 7-year-old and 4-year-old sons were in tears as the U.S. lost to Brazil this summer [in the Confederations Cup final]. They go to numerous games, know the chants by heart and have asked me to sing them before they go to bed. Twenty years ago, these things just didn't happen."
Others would appear to believe that he is claiming too much.
But White has another worry: "My contention is that in nation as large (geographically) as the U.S., soccer will never become a fabric of our society until it is broadcast on formerly 'over-the-air' networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox. There are millions who still do not have access to, or will never pay for, cable or satellite programming. Until a kid in Kansas can turn on ABC on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and watch a D.C. United vs. Sounders FC match ... he won't really care or know anything about it."
That, of course, means battling for space against the likes of American football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
"Occasionally, soccer can capture this country's hearts (this summer's Confed Cup, the 1999 Women's World Cup). But we're discussing a time when we
His point is embellished by
This, to an outsider such as myself, is a fascinating point. The focus on individualism is interesting -- but then surely seems to be undermined by the idea that cities can feel so represented by a collective. Perhaps context is all-important. In the sphere where the Cowboys or the Yankees operate, they can be considered the biggest around without leaving the States. Soccer is different. It's the global game. The bar is much, much higher. Once that bar is cleared, it will surely be easier for the game to find its space.
But this is a process that starts way before the players are in the clutches of
This brings us to the thorny issue of youth development.
Surely a nation trying to establish itself in soccer needs to widen the net as far as possible to catch all available talent? And if the global history of soccer tells us anything, it is that the outstanding talent is most likely to be found where the money isn't.