World Cup has its niche here


To the Editor:

Tomorrow, the fifth biggest sporting event in the United States will begin when South Africa hosts Mexico in the first match of the 2010 World Cup. A day later, the United States will play its much anticipated opening game against a heavily favored English team, which has a respectable chance of winning this year’s trophy. With Islanders more focused on Island Cups, Vineyard Cups, Stanley Cups, and coffee cups, and ESPN still beginning each episode of Sports Center with Brett Favre, it can be easy to forget that the greatest sporting event on the planet will be unfolding roughly 6,000 miles off South Beach in South Africa.

To be a true World Cup enthusiast here takes real effort. Waking at odd hours to catch games from the European leagues, or huddling together in the only bar you can find that can, and may be willing to, show a game. But soccer fans are unique in their dedication (I once watched a World Cup match in a jazz bar that refused even to turn on the sound). This dedication is one reason why soccer can bring people together like few other activities in this world.

Here, there is an extremely passionate niche group of supporters who always find a way to watch and play the game they love. Not surprisingly, the Island soccer community consists of a diverse group of people from all nationalities and backgrounds, unified perhaps only in sport. While there may be places across the US where the World Cup happens in obscurity, that will thankfully not be the case on the Vineyard. Coop DeVille in Oak Bluffs has pledged to show every match of the tournament, and the Brazilian community, the biggest minority group on the Island, will likely dedicate the month to celebrating their country’s participation. Rumors have also been circulating that some may even take a day off from work. Brazil, the most decorated soccer nation with five World Cups to their name, will again be among the favorites at this year’s tournament.

Since the World Cup came to the United States in 1994, soccer has been on the rise in our country. In recent years, television channels have shown increasing numbers of matches from European leagues and around the world, making the game far more accessible in the U.S. This is no accident. The big European clubs see the States as a gold mine for marketing and merchandising.

Yet, despite this increase in availability, soccer still has a long way to go here. Twice as many people would rather watch American Idol than the World Cup Final. ESPN has recently reduced its soccer coverage, with viewers more inclined toward televised poker or coverage of the World’s Strongest Man. ESPN will still cover the World Cup, although I gather some viewers have already mistaken the sports cable channel’s World Cup ad campaign for a month-long U2 concert.

It may sound strange, but the general disinterest here at home makes soccer and the World Cup more sacred to loyal supporters. While soccer fans internationally are known as supporters of the world’s most popular game, here, united by struggle, we are defined as a niche audience, and a rebel one at that.

There may be no greater thrill than actually attending the World Cup, which I did in 2006, but just being in a soccer-crazed nation during the tournament is a close second. Just as summer begins to pick up here, the rest of the world will be literally shutting down and focusing on what really matters. Unfortunately, a rough last quarter on Wall Street has led President Obama to rule out this idea here.

The World Cup will only last one month, but it will embody two years worth of buildup and immortalize the winner forever. People forget that to qualify for the tournament, teams must endure a grueling string of matches against other teams in their region. Soccer is a year-round, full-time commitment, not merely a month’s vacation, as we who have suffered know all too well. Most people will not be surprised to see familiar powerhouse teams such as Argentina, Nigeria, France, Mexico, or Portugal and not realize that these teams barely survived their qualification, a few perhaps not even deserving their place among the final 32.

As a full-time supporter, it’s tempting to feel bitter and superior to the unsophisticated masses who show up only once every four years. But this is precisely the beauty and power of the World Cup. For one month, soccer can captivate and unite people of all interest levels and backgrounds, on all continents and in all six towns on the Island. While the event may never excite our country the way it does the rest of the world, it’s almost impossible not to be inspired, or at least affected in some way. In previous World Cup years, I have seen friends who hardly ever play soccer turn into animated players, magically acquiring never-before-seen foot skills and savvy.

The United States’ team is favored to advance out of its group, but it remains a real long shot to advance past the quarterfinal stage. It will be interesting to see if a good showing by the USA in South Africa can captivate the American audience. Soccer is the world’s game and, almost by definition therefore, not America’s, but hopefully for the next month, we can swallow our pride and be a part of something far greater than any single nation or Island or idea ever could be.

Sam Griswold

West Tisbury