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Cameron: Passion for soccer grows in U.S.

By Stephen Cameron

It has seemed almost a law of the universe…like, forever.

The rest of the planet is crazy for soccer, and the United States merely yawns.

When the 2014 World Cup opened in Brazil this week, was anyone surprised that a couple hundred K-State students from that country packed Tanner’s in Aggieville to see their heroes begin a quest for their record sixth trophy?

Carlos Andre, a native of Pernambuco who was wearing a jersey with the name of Brazilian superstar Neymar on the back, said he couldn’t imagine missing a World Cup game.

“I only wish I could have gone home for it,” he hollered over the din as Tanner’s seemed to be shaking to its foundations. “It was just not possible to get there and back.”

The samba patrons sang in Portugese, celebrated Brazil’s 3-1 victory over Croatia and the World Cup, it seemed, remained in its familiar orbit.


Wait a minute!

If Tanner’s and a few other pubs around town thought they got a little soccer business over the weekend, wait until Monday evening.

The United States opens its World Cup campaign against Ghana — and this nation has never cared so much.

Planning to watch at a local pub? Get there early, OK?

Digest this next sentence slowly, and think about what it means: It’s very possible that half the population of the U.S. — around 170 million people — will watch all or some of this World Cup.

Nielsen ratings pegged 111 million U.S. viewers during the 2010 tournament in South Africa, and skyrocketing interest suggests far bigger numbers this time around.

TV networks in this country are clawing over each other to lock up rights to future World Cups — plus non-stop soccer from the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and other glamour competitions.

The entire TV and radio package for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups cost ESPN and Spanish-language Univision what once was considered a staggering $425 million.

Now Fox and Telemundo have raised the stakes, snagging the 2018 and 2022 events for…

Would you believe $1.2 billion?

Back at home, consider this: ESPN signed a deal with Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2006 for $64 million over eight seasons.

When MLS rights fees are finalized for next year, the league expects ESPN, NBC and Univision to cough up something north of $70 million for one season.

Yes, one.

It’s not simply about Americans deciding to become soccer couch potatoes and see all this action on the tube, either. 

Would you believe that no other country will have as many visiting fans for this World Cup in Brazil as the U.S.?

Not England. Not Germany. Not even neighboring Argentina.

About 155,000 Americans have booked tickets, tours, flights and all the rest for roughly a month in Brazil — and it’s estimated that collectively they will spend more than a billion dollars.

Soccer moms (and dads) probably knew this already, but America has embraced “the beautiful game.”

The sport has grabbed the United States by the throat and won’t let go.

“It’s wild,” said Bill Turnley, K-State professor and youth soccer coach. “Twenty years ago, when the World Cup came to the United States in 1994, I remember driving from Columbia (SC) to Atlanta for a match — and relatively few people even understood the game.

“Now everything’s changed, with the quality of play and passion for the sport here, from young kids on up.

“We see European football (yes, that’s what the rest of the world calls it) every weekend — all the different leagues, and watch the very best teams and players.

“About three weeks ago, I heard one of those sports talk shows where the hosts are still totally anti-soccer, and they were making fun of it. They asked if anyone could name just two players from France or Belgium, like that was a joke.

“Heck, I know a hundred people who could name the entire lineups for those two countries without even pausing to think.

“It’s a different time, a completely different time.”

Some of this interest, of course, has evolved along with the success of the United States on the global stage.

The U.S. women are routinely among the very elite, and the men’s team — under charismatic German-born coach Jurgen Klinsmann — opens this current World Cup ranked No. 14 in the world.

Unfortunately, the draw for this battle in Brazil was horribly unkind, dropping the U.S. into the so-called “Group of Death” with Ghana, Portgual (featuring superstar Cristiano Ronaldo) and Klinsmann’s native three-time champion Germany.

And lest anyone think that the opener against Ghana might be a breather to give the Yanks a running start, it’s worth noting that the Ghanaians — driven by powerful striker Asamoah Gyan — have been the team that eliminated the U.S. in the past two World Cups.

None of that, however, has dented any of the excitement leading up to Monday.

“It’s like night and day how football — the real football — has developed in this country, and the enthusiasm along with it,” said Frank Alonso, London native and coach of Manhattan High’s very successful soccer program.

“I came over here in 1990 and, honestly, it’s hard to explain how the overall standards are so much higher now,” he said.

“I think seeing European football on TV so regularly now has been one of the things that’s made a difference.

“You can’t get to the next level unless you see the next level, experience the next level. We’re there now, and it shows in the coaching, the numbers of players in youth and high school programs — and we actually have a very high level of high school soccer here in Kansas.”

Along the way with various traveling teams, Alonso has coached Sporting Kansas City stars Matt Besler and Seth Sinovic — both products of Johnson County soccer programs.

Besler will be starting at center back for the U.S. against Ghana, and Alonso is thrilled (but with one caveat).

He’ll be rooting for the U.S. and these guys he knows — unless they face England.

“You can’t change blood,” Alonso said. “I’m at a tournament (in Iowa) all this weekend and I’ll be wearing an England shirt every day.”

Make no mistake, though: Coaches like Alonso and Turnley are ecstatic over the growing passion for soccer in this country.

For the 1990 World Cup in Italy, TNT bought the American TV rights for less than $8 million, and the highest-rated game (U.S. vs. Czechoslovakia) drew 850,000 viewers.

“We’re in a new world now,” Alonso said, “and it’s obvious that America is not going back.”

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