Ante-millennium America was ho-hum about soccer as a sport, because it is a game with: nonstop motion, international players, loose rules and corruption, low expectations of scoring and an imprecise ending.
Post-millennium America may become fanatical about futbol, because it is a game with: nonstop motion, international players, loose rules and corruption, low expectations of scoring and an imprecise ending.
The game hasn't changed, but perhaps America has.
"One of the big changes is simple," says sportswriter Christine Brennan of USA Today. "Soccer, or futbol, has been a part of the lives of American kids for several generations now. They grew up playing the game and even if they don't play it now, it was a big part of their childhood before they moved on to other sports or pursuits. We're talking about millions of boys and girls who appreciate the game in a way their parents never could."
It will take years — and a club of historians and sociologists — to understand all the reasons why millions more Americans are paying attention to the World Cup this go 'round. But here are a few reflections on why the very same aspects of the game that used to annoy many Americans may now explain soccer's swelling popularity:
1) Nonstop motion. Traditionally, Americans have seen soccer as a slow game. But nowadays, compared to a National Football League or Major League Baseball game, a World Cup match seems to go by fast. It moves like we do — nonstop, lickety-split. The game is over in two hours or so. Americans used to decry a lack of pauses in the game — for beer runs and bathroom breaks. Now we are so accustomed to multitasking with mobile technology, we take the game with us while we do whatever it is we need to do. "America is always on the move," observed the visionary poet e.e. cummings. "She may be going to Hell, of course, but at least she isn't standing still."
2) International players. America has always prided itself on being a melting pot, but in today's nation, even the pot has melted. Immigration is a front-and-center issue. Who is a foreigner anymore? We are an overflowing fufu-and-egusi soup of foreign influences. Many of our best baseballers and basketballers are from other countries. Indeed, our sports and universities and corporations are deeply influenced by people not born in this country. The 2010 census data show that nearly 40 million folks, or 13 percent of our population, are foreign-born.
3) Loose rules and corruption. Who knows when a player is out of bounds in a soccer match? And on a broader scale, certain teams and even FIFA — the governing body of world futbol — are under constant scrutiny for corrupt behavior. In 21st century America, we are growing all-too accustomed to blurred out-of-bounds lines and creeping corruption — in our government, in our corporations, as well as on the sporting fields. Relaxed rules allow National Basketball Association players to travel further and MLB pitchers to use a little pine tar. As for corruption, a recent study published in the Public Administration Review reveals that in the 10 most corrupt states in the country, corruption among public officials cost each state citizen an average of $1,308 more than "if corruption had been at the average level of the states." That is the sort of routine language we use in our studies now — average level of corruption.
4) Low expectations of high scoring. For many Americans, we are living in an era of lowered expectations anyway. A recent Pew Research study shows that millennials (age 18-33) have lower expectations about the future in certain areas. For instance, they do not expect that there will be a Social Security fund to protect them in retirement. A Rutgers University study shows that a majority of high school and college graduates expect to have less financial success than their parents. Millennials also expect longer work hours and smaller families, BenefitsPro reports. There is, Joel Kotkin writes in New Geography, "the growing notion among economists that the new generation must lower its expectations." So who expects high scoring games anymore? Or even winning? Playing to draw may be enough.
5) Uncertain end. More and more, Americans seem to be living with no idea of when the game is over. Just like in soccer, with its nebulous "stoppage time" — that extends the finale of a game — that only a referee is privy to. In these unsettled and unsettling times, who knows when your job is going to end? Or your retirement savings? Or this story?
The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj