The most socially significant aspect of the U.S. women's run to the World Cup final was the lack of social significance. Soccer folks didn't shove their game down the rest of the country's throat, and the rest of the country didn't shout down the soccer folks.
We've reached a détente.
About time. Because that whole soccer argument was beyond boring, and I've been on both sides of it.
We hosted the men's World Cup in 1994, won the women's World Cup in 1999 with Brandi Chastain and her sports bra, and reached the men's quarterfinals in 2002. The sport was creeping toward a mainstream breakthrough in this country, and you could feel it.
Well, I could feel it. But only because I wanted to feel it. Soccer fans like me, we were thinking with our hearts, not our heads. Our hearts told us that legions of adults -- many of whom had played soccer as little kids, running spastically when the ball was nearby, looking for grasshoppers when it wasn't -- would reconnect to those roots and begin supporting the sport again.
Soccer agnostics were laughing at us, because those cold bastards were thinking with their heads, not their hearts. They knew soccer wouldn't catch fire here, and they were right. Over time, I joined their side -- not as an agnostic, but as someone who realized the world's game was never going to be our game. And over time, that became fine by me. Soccer is an acquired taste, and if the majority of sports fans in this country only acquired it during the World Cup, so be it.
Women's World Cup 2011
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Meanwhile, the yammering continued. Soccer snobs painted themselves as intellectual sophisticates, preening over the subtle beauty of their sport like a wine snob preens over a glass of pinot noir. Soccer agnostics lashed back, rebuking theories about their lack of sophistication by authoring websites built around phrases like, "Soccer, for the most part is a disgusting exercise."
The war raged. They didn't like us. We didn't like them. Which side was I on? Both. Neither. I didn't like any of you.
But like I said, we seem to have reached a détente in recent weeks. The U.S. women reached the World Cup final, but not with superior talent like in previous World Cups, bludgeoning countries whose sexist attitudes had held women's soccer down. Those countries have come around, and just like on the men's side, lots of them have more soccer talent than we do. But still we won! In the quarterfinals we beat Brazil, a team that would have drilled us in a series of skills tests but couldn't handle our determination. We beat France in the semifinals. And then in the championship game we almost beat, and should have beaten, Japan.
Point being, the U.S. women made soccer fun -- and here in America we watched and attached no social significance to it. We weren't watching a flower bloom. We were watching soccer. That's all we were watching.
And it was so refreshing. So often a sport comes along -- or in soccer's case has been around, and makes a rousing re-emergence -- but it's not enough for people to enjoy the sport. We have to argue about what it means.
Again, guilty. You know the whole mixed martial arts argument, right? MMA will overtake boxing in this country. No it won't, MMA is a violent fad that we're passing like a kidney stone. No, wrong, sorry -- thanks to the UFC, MMA is here to stay and will join football, baseball and basketball as the four biggest sports in America.
All that noise is nonsense, and I've contributed to the volume several times, most recently in May.
Not until this past week, when the country watched the women's World Cup and let the game speak for itself, did it occur to me that I've not been part of the MMA-or-boxing solution -- I'm part of the problem. You can't tell a fan of a certain sport to like mine, not yours. And you damn sure shouldn't rip another person's favorite pastime just because you don't like it (except for cricket; that sport's just stupid).
And none of you -- none of us -- did it this week with soccer. Good for us. Shame on me if I missed it, but I've not sensed any momentum for the argument that soccer is coming, so get on board or get out of the way. And there were numbers to say soccer's coming, all right. The USA-Japan game drew an overnight TV rating of 8.6, significantly better than the MLB All-Star Game last week (6.9). So soccer could conceivably challenge baseball in this country? No. Come on. That's silly.
But that sort of knee-jerk reaction to soccer happened a decade ago, and it even came back last year when the U.S. men won their World Cup group for the first time since 1930, with Landon Donovan scoring the group-winning goal late against Algeria. A nationwide poll asked the question, "Will soccer become popular in the U.S. as a result of America's success at the World Cup?"
And 68 percent said yes. Two out of three people honestly believed a handful of patriotic soccer games would give traction to a sport that has always slipped through the cracks of our national consciousness.
Ridiculous, but that's not a mistake we're repeating now. The women were successful last week in Germany, and they were successful with a charming, daring style of soccer -- but that's as far as it goes. The women's World Cup wasn't proof that soccer has evolved in this country.
It was proof that we have evolved in this country.