In full disclosure, I started playing soccer when I was 6 years old, and caught the bug from the beginning. So this blog entry will be a bit difficult for me to write with any sort of objectivity. As part of the first generation of women who saw soccer as their sport, and who saw the girl power in the game long before the 1999 U.S. women’s team celebrated their women's World Cup win with a shirt-offing, I was certainly not alone.
For years, soccer has been the game of choice for more kids than most other sports. In 2009, 55% of kids played (and has steadily increased in the years that YouthBeat has tracked this stat). So why does this beautiful game work for so many kids?
First, both girls and boys can play…And while this isn’t always a recipe for sports success, soccer seems to be a passion shared across the sexes. Inherently, this means that soccer has a greater impact on youth culture than most other games. The pitch might be the most compelling place for ever-gender conscious kids and tweesn to find common ground.
Second, soccer doesn’t discriminate. While boys, in particular, begin hearing messages at a young age about the limits of their stature (too short for b-ball, too small for football), soccer rewards the little guy. Don’t get us wrong, soccer requires strength and stamina. But the dream stays alive a bit longer for aspiring soccer stars. Because one only needs a ball to play (shoes are still optional), soccer continues to be one of the most democratic, accessible sports around.
And finally, the field is more open – and we’re not talking size. In most cases, kids don’t compete for one role or a few positions…And this means that kids are less likely to sit the bench and more likely to experience one of the biggest rewards of the game: a sense of belonging.
But when it comes to soccer, do Americans really belong?
While girls around the country took their dads to those U.S. women’s games years ago, mainstream U.S. sports fans haven’t exactly embraced the professional game. But will this change with this World Cup? Some of the numbers are already in, and most would say no – at least not for now. (According to PEWResearch.org, only 27% of Americans said they “cared” about the World Cup before the latest stage of the tourney began.) With the U.S. men’s exciting win over Algeria moving them into the next round of play, more Americans probably tuned in to the team’s heartbreaking loss to Ghana. (According to the Mashable Blog, “The dramatic ending to the World Cup match between the USA and Algeria could set a new record for Internet traffic.”)
In a time when great American heroes can be hard to come by, these guys looked like the real thing. Endorsement deals aside, these guys (important caveat: in the U.S.) aren’t making the money that most other professional athletes are. The love of the game seems like the story we hear about them – not their behavior off the field. And when’s the last time we got to feel like the underdog? We’re proud when they merely move on to the next level – and win the right to compete with teams from countries comprised of kids who grew up thinking this was the only game in town.
With the US out of contention and off the air, will US families pay attention? It’s going to be a tougher sell than ever for little guys who would, in truth, prefer to play than watch soccer. But we think there’s good reason for little kickers to tune in…The beautiful game is incomparably beautiful when it’s viewed at this level. We’re not saying that there’s not something charming about a swarm of 7 year olds crowding the ball, but seeing the game played this way could convert the most skeptical fan – and give little players something to emulate. There’s no better way to globalize kids’ perspective…If there’s one place where the world truly comes together, it’s here. And for kids, learning about what makes countries different – and not so different - was never easier. Finally, there’s nothing more empowering for kids than asking them to teach adults about something. While many of today’s parents grew up with soccer (like I did), many would admit that they still have a lot to learn.
So for the next few weeks, tune in to football the way the rest of the world plays. And revel in being a soccer fan like more and more Americans – even if it’s only once every four years.