The World Cup is here—but the United States is not, having failed to qualify. Are you still pumped?
Is it tacky to put it so bluntly? Is it overly American? Parochial? Do I sound like I’m wearing a bald eagle hat? Is it just, you know…rude?
Maybe! Even the casual sports fan knows that, with or without the United States men’s team, soccer’s every-four-years global competition is the most popular and watched athletic event on the planet. (Yes, even more so than the NBA Draft.) To not take the World Cup seriously—or worse, to ignore it altogether—is to declare yourself in 2018 an unserious sports fan, because there is no bigger sports spectacle, with greater stakes, than this.
And I am counting SEC college football, if you’re wondering.
Just because Team USA won’t be there when play begins in Russia on June 14 doesn’t mean it can’t be a sublime World Cup, or that it won’t feature the traditional heavies or the sport’s greatest talent (and isn’t like the U.S. was going to run away with the trophy, anyway). Germany, Argentina, Spain, France…Iceland (Hurra Iceland!)…England, France, Belgium, Mexico…Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Mo Salah (Mo Salah!)…they’re all in. (Italy also missed out, alas.)
You may have already picked a new team to root for. Maybe it’s not a new team—maybe it’s a national team your family has always rooted for. Ours is a nation of immigrants, after all.
There will be heroes and villains, upsets and predictable routs, climaxing at the final at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on the third Sunday in July. You gotta figure you-know-who will be in the audience, too—like the built-from-the-ground-up Sochi Olympics before it, this World Cup, spread across 11 Russian cities, from Kaliningrad to Ekaterinburg, is a pageant to the
It’s a really big deal. But…
Yes, it stinks the United States is not in it! What do you want me to say? Am I supposed to pretend that it’s perfectly alright that the American men have failed to make it for the first time since 1990? Especially after the U.S. men produced such tingly thrillsin recent Cups in South Africa and Brazil, reaching the round-of-16 both times?
It’s a bummer, big time. But if it’s a bummer for me and you, what about the stateside people who bought plane tickets and sewed American flag overalls? What about those Fox television executives, bidding big money for the U.S. rights—and not having a local outfit that can be counted on to goose ratings?
Look: it’s easy to be a crank or Chicken Little. Today I prefer to be an optimist.
I think we’re going to learn a lot about soccer in the U.S. in the next month. I really do. There’s now a whole generation in this country that has grown up familiar with the international game. Technology has made it easy to follow world-class play. You probably saw how nutso many of your fellow Americans got a couple of weeks ago for that wild Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid. I can’t walk down my street without passing a half-dozen kids in Messi jerseys. Major League Soccer continues to grow and bolster the domestic game. On Wednesday we will find out if the U.S. is part of a successful bid to host the 2026 World Cup. And let’s not forget our habitually tail-kicking United States women’s team, the winners of three women’s World Cups, including the most recent in 2015.
To be very clear: the whole ‘Can Soccer Thrive in America?’ question is kaput. It’s thriving. The traditional borders are coming down or are crumbling altogether.
I won’t claim it doesn’t hurt that the U.S. men didn’t make it. Those stateside soccer bars were really rocking in 2014! Likewise, I can’t ignore FIFA’s ignominious history and the long shadow of corruption that has followed the World Cup. The next cup, Qatar 2022, is already awash in human rights controversies. Reform is badly needed.
But you’ll see over the next four weeks: this event is still crazy, still worthwhile, still good for brilliant moments that reach around the globe like no other sporting event on earth. Those bars are still going to be rocking.
It’s the World Cup, people. Let’s do this.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com