FIRST PUBLISHED: Football First newspaper, June 3, 2005
By Chris Hunt


On the whole Americans still don’t get football. They can’t even come to terms with the name of the world’s most popular sport, persevering with their quaint habit of calling it ‘soccer’!


Parachute into a ‘Tailgate Party’ in the car park of the Giants Stadium before a Major League Soccer game and you’d easily believe that the world’s most popular sport has finally cracked the USA. Entire families of passionate ‘soccer’ fans crowd around the griddle of their portable barbeques, discussing the local kids’ team, probably named something like the Cougar Hurricanes. In fact, everyone you talk to coaches a local team and for these extended families and their neighbours ‘soccer’ is the new religion, a way of life centred on dad organising the training and ‘soccer mom’ driving the team to games in her brand new Sport Utility Vehicle!


It’s only when you get inside the Giants Stadium that you realise that the sport still has so far to grow. Average attendances for Major League Soccer games are well below 15,000, even for the New York MetroStars who play in a stadium that once boasted regular crowds of 70,000 to watch Pele, Beckenbauer and the big names of the New York Cosmos in the heyday of the North American Soccer League. Over 50,000 may have made the effort to watch David Beckham’s England defeat Columbia, but when the final whistle blew well over three-quarters of the crowd streamed out of the stadium, unprepared to sit through an average quality MLS clash between the Metrostars and Chicago Fire.


Football has a battle on its hands if it wants to take on the US sporting establishment. “We see a soccer game invade our television screen and will pull a hamstring lunging for the remote control to change the channel,” wrote one New York Daily Post sports columnist on game day. “I call my boss and I ask, “Exactly what has to happen for this column to make the back page of The Post today?” And he asks, “Does Beckham think Randy Johnson’s lost his fastball for good.”


Baseball remains the national pastime, but football is definitely making small inroads into the American public consciousness – there’s even a ‘soccer bar’ just slugging distance from the ivy covered walls of Wrigley Field, home of baseball institution the Chicago Cubs. Tucked away on the corner of Ashland and Grace, the unimposing Ginger’s Ale House has been voted ‘No.1 Soccer Bar In The US’ for two years running. On the surface it appears to be a fairly average Irish pub, but it seems proud of its smattering of football imagery – alongside the Stars & Stripes and the Irish Tricolour hang the colours of Arsenal, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Bristol City, West Ham, Chelsea and Spurs, while there’s even a Swansea City shirt on display.


“We show all Premier League, Championship, Champions League, MLS and international matches,” says bar owner Tony Griffin. “With Premiership games the crowd is mainly Irish and English, however more and more Americans are showing up. For the Champions League we get a lot of Polish and Italians too. In general, though, the Premiership has the biggest following and any international games are always packed.”


While it may be catching on with some immigrant communities, not everyone is a regular. A third generation Yank of German descent is drinking in the bar for the first time. For this blue-collar construction worker and die-hard Chicago White Sox fan, football is still only an occasional experience. “I support Germany in the World Cups but that’s about the only soccer that I watch,” he says. “If they want the sport to get bigger over in the USA they should have the World Cup here more often.”


The baseball fans streaming out of the Cubs game at Wrigley Field don’t even seem to know that their national ‘soccer’ team is playing in the city that weekend, but Liverpool’s surprise Champions League victory has made it onto the radar of some. “Wasn’t there a big upset recently?” asked one local shopkeeper. “Soccer is particularly popular in our lower school system. You’ll see them playing all the time whereas ten years ago you wouldn’t have come across it at all. People of my generation don’t really understand it, but for the 35s and under it’s growing in popularity. It’s still the poor cousin of the other sports though.”


Just a few blocks away, Tom, a trader in memorabilia, doesn’t know anything about the international sporting event that will be taking place just a few miles from his shop. “There’s a soccer game here?” he asks. “Who’s playing?” While he may not be aware of the presence of his national football team, or for that matter the Chicago Fire, his city’s current MLS franchise holder, with little prompting he pulls from his files a NASL poster from the 1970s that depicts the stars of the Chicago Sting, boasting the tagline, ‘The Sting’s The Thing’. “They played at Wrigley Field and sometime at the White Sox stadium Comiskey Park,” he says. “Have you heard of Karl-Heinz Granitza? He was a very popular soccer player here?”


In some ways football’s US converts are still seen as sporting eccentrics. “My friends think I’m crazy,” says 60-year-old Nancy Sieffert. A passionate fan of the New York Metrostars and West Ham, she is also a veteran fan of the classic New York Cosmos line-up of the mid ’70s. “I had theatre tickets to see Shakespeare tonight but I had to give them away – I said I have to go to a big soccer game today. People think I’m nuts but my kids are just glad I have it as a hobby.”


What gives these die-hard US ‘soccer’ fans heart is the fact that their passion for the beautiful game is creating self-contained communities. Soccer fans just hang-out with each other. “It’s my main sport and I pick my friends based on that,” says John Walmsley, who along with his two friends and his Blackburn-born father drove the five hours to Chicago from Lexington, Kentucky. “I get a little bit of shit at work from people saying that soccer is a pansies sport, that there’s no contact, but it’s mainly from ignorant people who’ve never seen a match.”


In New Jersey Martin Durney coaches his son’s team and believes that the kids are the sport’s real future. “Soccer may be able to compete with the lower tier sports,” he says. “Baseball and [American] football will always be popular but it could certainly compete with ice hockey and maybe even basketball at some levels. There are so many kids playing, it must only be a matter of time before it takes off. And with the US showing up in the World Cup and performing well, that helps a lot too.”


Others are less convinced. Caribbean-born Jean Marie Francois has been impressed with the progress made in the last ten years, but thinks there’s a long way to go before his favourite sport can be seen as a national pastime. “They’ve put a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of money and a lot of effort into the MLS, but will it ever rival American sports?” he asks. “Not in my lifetime, that’s for sure.”




Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007