The 2010 FIFA World Cup was a success in this country by just about any measure. In and around Boston, from Lansdowne St. to Lancaster, soccer talk was the buzz for much of June into July. Certainly, the wave of interest receded once the United States team was eliminated. But the evidence is strong that this Cup made a big difference as far as interest in the world game.
Color photos of World Cup action adorned the front pages of major, big city newspapers almost daily. That means editors think soccer sells newspapers. TV ratings in this country, meanwhile, set records. That means TV executives know soccer can sell advertising and sponsorship. Loads of kids and even some older, hard-boiled sports-talk-radio types were tossing out names like “Forlán”, “Robben” and “”Drogba” like they’d actually heard of those players before early June.
It’s OK. We like it that way. Soccer may not yet be America’s game but it is the world’s game, and it’s good to see Americans not just spectating but also caring when our national team competes and doesn’t win. That’s more like the USA that I know and love.
Here are some observations from the 64 matches that just washed over us the past month:
The Netherlands can’t complain about the refereeing in the final versus Spain. Seriously. The Oranje set the physical tone and were lucky to get to halftime with 11 men. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff said it best when he described his native country’s approach as “very dirty.”
Kudos are certainly due to South Africa. Small blips notwithstanding, everything considered -- logistics, security, presentation -- this tournament was a success for FIFA, the host nation and for the image of Africa as a continent. There’s no doubt that South Africa still has many serious social and political issues to deal with once all the media and tourists have passed through. This event, however, was a shining moment for the hosts.
While the first round of games in the Group Stage was indeed stodgy, with too many teams playing not to lose, the second and third rounds of group games were often fantastic. Memorable matches included the United States against Slovenia and Algeria, Italy versus both New Zealand and Slovakia and Argentina-South Korea.
The studs-up, cheap shot by the Ivory Coast’s Ismael Tioté on Brazil’s Elano sustained in the 65th minute of Brazil’s 3-1 win in the group stage went unpunished by the referee. It also put one of the tournament favorites’ top creative, attacking forces out of the tournament. One player might not have made a difference in Brazil’s quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands. Then again, he might have.
Uruguay-Ghana was one of the most epic, memorable matches and endings to a game in World Cup history. It was heartbreaking for the Black Stars to lose the way they did, but don’t vilify the Uruguayans -- the handball law needs to be changed.
No one around the world is crying over the early exits by usual powers England, France and 2006 champ Italy. But make no mistake, those failures were all viewed as a national crisis in each of those countries, and every attempt will be made to rectify their national teams’ setups forthwith.
ESPN’s coverage of the tournament was a quantum leap forward from anything we’ve experienced before in this country. Quibble if you like about which announcers were better than others or have a go at a very few strange camera cuts by the host broadcasters (everyone around the world saw the same live feeds) -- this was top-class, digital-deluxe, expert soccer TV. Think back to the days of old; there was absolutely nothing substantial for real or passive soccer fans watching the World Cup on TV to complain about in 2010.
World Cup viewership rose 41 percent from 2006 for English-language telecasts in the U.S., while a total of 24.4 million people watched the final live in the U.S. With the upward, exponential progress in TV technology and ratings power driving advertising it’s exciting to think about what the next World Cup will look like on TV in 2014.
Some of the much-discussed refereeing mistakes during the tournament may well lead to the addition of goal-line technology and perhaps the addition of two more live officials for big games. But to be fair, the way the laws of the game were enforced in this World Cup makes the 1970s and '80s look like the Dark Ages. Skill players are now afforded much more protection than in years past, which means technique, finesse and pure athleticism can prevail over thuggery and physicality. Witness the triumph of Spain’s passing-, possession-oriented style. The refs were mostly good at this tournament, despite some glaring errors in big spots.
The U.S. neither exceeded nor fell short of expectations. Sure, it was tough for American fans looking down the line and seeing Uruguay waiting if their Yanks were able to beat Ghana -- rather than one of the name word soccer powers -- but let’s be honest, Diego Forlán and the "garra charrua" gang were never going to be easy opponents for the USA. The round of 16 was as far as the Americans deserved to go -- anything else was gravy.
In truth, with Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard as the American’s only bona fide superstars (with Michael Bradley emerging as one in June), it was always going to be difficult for the U.S. to match its 2002 quarterfinal appearance.
How will the U.S. ever win it? The New England Revolution’s Under-16 and Under-18 teams are great examples of how the U.S. Soccer Federation sees the way forward, with its 77 elite, national Development Academy clubs. In the Revs’ case, it's a top-flight, pro team bringing in the top youth talent from around its region with a variety of backgrounds, and exposing them to a professional-style training environment and top competition. But it has to start younger than that. FA development director Sir Trevor Brooking led the inquest into England’s shortcomings in player development and identified ages 5 to 11 as the crucial stage that his country is missing out on in terms of laying the foundations for success. The U.S. would like to think it does pretty well with those age groups; indeed, youth coaching in the U.S. is light years beyond where it was even 15 years ago. But the fact that the country has never developed a player of the caliber of Wesley Sneijder, Lionel Messi or Andrés Iniesta tells you America has a way to go, too.
Along those lines, I have my own theory about how the U.S. can win the World Cup on relatively short order. Kobe Bryant observed that the U.S. needed someone like him -- an athletic, 6-foot-6 player -- to put the nation where it should be soccer-wise when taking its athletic talent pool into account. Well here’s how to do it: Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Steve Nash -- all soccer-loving NBA superstars -- could partner with some big corporations (and believe me, more than a few need a positive public relations hit these days) in ponying up matching funds to establish futsal in inner city schools around the country. Futsal, in case you don’t already know, is indoor soccer, played with a heavy ball on a basketball court with small goals. When you see highlights of international stars such as Lukas Podolski of Germany or Robinho of Brazil playing as kids, the video is often of them playing futsal. This derivative of outdoor soccer encourages creativity, a good first touch and can be played inexpensively indoors. Seriously, basketball, football and baseball will be fine. Put futsal in the schools and just watch -- 2022 will be the United States' World Cup.
Brad Feldman is the television and radio play-by-play voice of the New England Revolution and supervising producer for all of the Revolution's regional telecasts. He is host of the online programs RevsWrap and In the Net and has 12 years of experience announcing and producing MLS and international soccer TV. He blogged on the FIFA World Cup for ESPN Boston throughout the tournament.