12:25pm

Fri June 27, 2014
Sports

Are Americans Bothered By Soccer?

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I do want to mention that we reached out to the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they said their response to the situation was explained in the letter that was sent to Kelly that we talked about on the program, and they have no further comment.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we turn to World Cup. Don't try to act like you don't care. Although, if you have been an American fan of what's known as the beautiful game for a while, well, you might feel like a regular worshiper on a big holiday. Who are all these people in your seat? And if it seems as though something is different this year - well, the television ratings confirm it. Last weekend's U.S.-Portugal match drew 25 million viewers - more than this year's NBA finals or last year's World Series. And yesterday's decisive match with Germany that allowed the U.S. to advance to the group of 16 - even though the U.S. lost - well, let's just say we weren't watching any congressional hearings yesterday during that time. But that got us wondering why now, and why did it take so long for the U.S. to catch World Cup fever? So we've called in a World Cup veteran to help us out. George Vecsey is a longtime sports columnist for the New York Times where he is now a contributor. He has been to eight World Cups, and he's author of the new book "Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty And Dark Side of Soccer." And he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GEORGE VECSEY: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: So let's get some of the news out of the way. Germany beat the U.S. 1-0 - not unexpected since Germany's one of the world's top teams. But give us your analysis of how team USA performed, and also, if you don't mind, explain how it is that even though the USA lost, they still got to advance.

VECSEY: Well, they play in a group. There are four teams in it. It was called the group of death. There is always a group of death in any World Cup. And it's a complement in a way to be in a group of death because it means that you're a good team also. So while I shortsighted the American team in this World Cup, thinking they would finish third or fourth, the fact is they had enough grit in Thursday's game to hold on. A 1-nothing loss to Germany was enough to have them finish ahead of Portugal and Ghana, two teams that I thought would, frankly, finish ahead of them. So as they say in soccer, a result - usually that means a draw or a victory, but in this case, the result is going through. And that's all that matters.

MARTIN: Now, I have to ask you - just long-term about how you feel the American team's prospects are. I mean, how do you think that they'll finish overall?

VECSEY: You know, in this World Cup, it's very hard to say. They play Belgium next, and Belgium's a better team. It's a tough road. I don't think the U.S. is anywhere near ready. They once reached the quarterfinals in 2002 in a similar scenario - just barely getting past the first round. But I don't think they're ready to compete at a semifinal or finalist level. They don't have the genius. They don't have the time. But you certainly could see in this World Cup they have more skill than they had a couple of decades ago.

MARTIN: And I do want to ask you about that chomp felt around the world. Luis Suarez of Uruguay has been suspended for four months after he - do we need to say allegedly? I mean...

VECSEY: I don't think we need it. As you see, he lowers his head, he sticks his choppers into the guy's shoulder and then there are marks on Chiellini's shoulder. No, this is the third time that Suarez has done this. He really has what I would call a psychological and medical problem. And although he has been suspended for nine games, which means the rest of this World Cup, also it's more than that. If FIFA doesn't mandate that he gets some kind of serious medical and psychological help, he has no business being back on the field at any time.

MARTIN: Well that's the - I wanted to raise this for people who are new to the game - just assure us that this is not a customary thing.

VECSEY: do you mean biting?

MARTIN: People don't expect - yeah, biting. Yeah.

VECSEY: No. They do do dirty things. I've seen elbows that broke eye sockets. I've seen a German goalkeeper just level a French guy. His teammates thought he was dead lying on the ground. This was in 1982 at my first World Cup. But a bite is outside any kind of contact collision, dirty foul play. A bite is a bite.

MARTIN: Let's just go back a little bit and just talk about, you know, the sport as it's meant to be played. You were one of the first American sports columnists to cover soccer, and, in fact, you actually played yourself - you don't probably mind my mentioning - not terribly well.

VECSEY: Oh no. I mention it myself. In fact, I got a nice little award for the American Soccer Federation last year, and I got up there, and I said if you had ever seen me play full black for Jamaica High School in the mid-1950s, I guarantee you would not even allow me up on this stage.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about what you actually like about it.

VECSEY: What I like about it is the creativity. When I watch good soccer players - the way they have to make a play out of nothing. The other night when the United States were playing Portugal and was in trouble during the match - their hard guy, midfielder Jermaine Jones - he worked his way around a screen, dribbled around two defenders - ball swerved, hooked inside the post and scored a goal the U.S. desperately needed. And why did Jermaine Jones shoot that? - not a scorer. It came to him. He saw - He created. I love that creativity.

MARTIN: We're talking with veteran New York Times sports columnist, George Vecsey. He's the author of the book "Eight World Cups" because he's covered eight world cups. And we're talking to him about that. So you've got some interesting theories about why it is that soccer, to this point anyway, has not been a big deal in the United States even though it's a very popular youth sport. What are some of your theories about why it is that soccer's been slow to catch on in this country?

VECSEY: Sure. The best and the brightest, the sports columnists around the country - I won't name names came, but - up with these cockamamie theories that everybody knows that Americans only like sports in which you use your hands. Frankly, it doesn't mean anything. It's a way of covering up a stick-in-the-mud mentality, lack of interest, and I think that's my generation. I mean, I'm an old guy. I'm mostly retired now, and they are, you know, at least in the professional sense, dying out. So I have no problem with saying that's passe, and frankly, they've been passe, for 20 years.

MARTIN: But hold on that second. You say in the book, that soccer seemed to remind Americans of something they instinctively fear - foreign languages, foreign influences. What do you think that is?

VECSEY: Even some of my friends, my sports columnist friends who travel, know the world - soccer bothered them. Did they equate soccer with, you know - what? - mobs in the street with riots? I couldn't even say. All I knew was I loved the nationalism. I love being in Germany in 2006 - to be there and see people daring, caring enough to fly their flag, to cheer Deutschland, Deutschland. It was a wonderful thing to see - them not being hesitant to show how patriotic they were.

MARTIN: You pointed out in the bucket and I think, as most people know, who follow the sport at all - it's hugely popular among immigrants from, you know, Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world where people grew up following the game. Do you think that whatever that was that kept people from appreciating the sport on the professional level - do you think that kind of - that's been broken?

VECSEY: Look, this is the America that I live in. The other day a guy got my car from a hotel in Philadelphia. And the guy's name was Mamadou. As I'm waiting for him to hand me the receipt, I said to him what's your team? And he didn't tell me his nationality. He said, well, I always liked Brazil. But that's good enough for me. It's a flash of recognition. It's the humanity we share, and I think that the younger generation - first of all, they're familiar with the sport. They like the spectacle. They've adopted it as something they can do on (unintelligible) with their time and their money. But there's also the broader sense that as younger people are more comfortable with people who are a little bit different - it's out there. They've been exposed to it, and now they're in their adult years. They have some money to spend. They're having a good time.

MARTIN: American football remains the most watch sport...

VECSEY: Of course.

MARTIN: ...On television. But there's increasingly some unhappiness about American football just in terms of, you know - a lot of parents are concerned about concussions and health effects that they see. I just sort of wonder do you think that soccer can move into a more preeminent place in our sports consciousness.

VECSEY: To some degree. I think that football has this real problem with the injuries when men who played professional football are saying they're not sure they would let their sons play. I'm not an evangelist for soccer. I would never place somebody give up your sport, either playing or following it. I would never tell anybody to give up hockey - the great sports we have here - basketball, lacrosse - rugby coming into its own - we've got so many great team sports, and I say hold on to them.

MARTIN: You've been to World Cups around the world as we mentioned. Be honest. Which country has, like, the best fans? If you weren't an American and you had to pick a country to be a soccer fan in, where would you go?

VECSEY: I don't think it's even close. The best fans in the world are in Brazil. I describe in the book, my first adventure in Spain, in beautiful Barcelona in 1982, I wander out of my hotel and I hear this sound. There's a traveling troop of 25 or 30 Brazilian people. The women were gorgeous. The men weren't bad either. The music - the horns - the guitarist. And they're just walking through the (unintelligible) playing. But that translates into stadiums full of people. They are nice people, good fans. They love their team, and they don't have, that I know about - they don't have the ultras and the crazies and the locos and the hooligans like some nations we could mention.

MARTIN: So where are you going to be watching the rest of the matches?

VECSEY: Well, I want to say that I have, because I'm not there and I'm not writing on deadline - when the Americans are playing, I have gone into seclusion to watch it because I need to take it all in. In other times, I have watched in - would you believe there are so many Belgians in New York City that I went to place other day, where it was packed with Belgian people, including two giantesses caring tridents and red horns on top of their heads, which I'd like to think were not real. But it was quite a sight to be around all these people in the red jerseys. So I like being around when other teams are playing. You get a sense of it. But if I really want to watch, I want to be in a very small group.

MARTIN: OK. George Vecsey is a contributing sports columnist for the New York Times. He's author of the book "Eight World Cups." He was with us from NPR, New York. George Vecsey, thanks so much for speaking with us.

VECSEY: Thank you very much. Thanks for caring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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