Monday, June 28, 2010

On Giorgio Chinaglia, Hipsters and The Growth of Soccer

Back when I was a kid, back when I didn't know any better, I used to watch soccer all the time. I was four years old, living in suburban New York,*  and my father had control of the television set. My brother and I sat in front of him and changed the channels manually, according to my father's whim; when the volume blinked out on our old RCA, as it did approximately every thirty minutes, it would be our job to twist the knob back up.** Mostly, we watched sports--the Yankees on WPIX and the Knicks on WOR or the Giants on CBS, but before all of that, I remember the Cosmos. I remember Pele (who was mostly just famous and hobbled--it was like watching Julio Franco), and I remember Franz Beckenbauer, and I remember Giorgio Chinaglia, names rolling off the tongue, exotic and strange. Everybody, it seemed to me, was watching the Cosmos. Everybody, I thought, cared about soccer, as much as they did about baseball, or basketball, or football.

I haven't seen the documentary (or read the book) on the Cosmos, but it seems like a fittingly strange subject. The Cosmos came from out of nowhere, and then disappeared; they (and the league they played in, then NASL) were an incredibly expensive fad, an unsustainable attempt at relevance. People seem to forget, when talking about the popularity of soccer in America, that the Cosmos ever existed, and maybe this is fair, and maybe the Cosmos were an exception to every rule, but they did happen. That's what people seem to overlook when they engage in this quadrennial fight about whether soccer can ever make it in America: Under the right circumstances, given the proper billing, people will watch anything, if only for a single moment. During the Olympics, we allow ourselves to become enraptured by anorexic teenagers leaping over imaginary horses. Thirty-eight years ago, thanks to Bobby Fischer and public broadcasting, chess became one of the most popular spectator sports in America.

What's my point? My point is this: The popularity of the World Cup most likely has little or nothing to do with the question of whether soccer will ever catch on as a mainstream sport in America. The World Cup is nothing more than a moment, and in America, everyone catches on to moments: The Super Bowl, for instance, is hardly a sporting event anymore. Everyone watches football on that day, even if they don't watch football at all during the year. It's a patriotic responsibility; it's an excuse for a party. But the reason soccer as a spectator sport appears to be catching on in America has nothing to do with the performance or popularity of the American team, positive or negative. The reason soccer is catching on is because it's growing from the bottom up: In this case, with urban hipsters. It's become a sort of underground badge of honor to watch UEFA matches, to get up early for Premier League games, to crack jokes about relegation. I have friends who talk about English football in the way people in the '90s used to talk about Pavement records. One of the coolest music scribes I know now writes almost exclusively about soccer.

Think about it. The two biggest growth sports of the latter quarter of the 20th century were NASCAR and mixed martial arts: One was started by bootleggers, the other by backyard fight clubs. So maybe that's the only way for a sport to truly catch on in this era of overexposure: It has to gestate underground for a generation. That's what's happened with soccer. A sport grows from the bottom up, slipping from the underground to the mainstream. There is no single moment, because if there is, that moment will simply fade away.

*I was born in Bronxville, and lived in the nondescript community of White Plains until I was five.We also had a Siamese cat named Trouble, who lived up to that moniker by sneaking out in the evening, rumbling with the neighborhood fauna, then coming home in the morning and heaving his guts out in little piles in the living room.
**I feel, in the generation before remote controls, that a whole generation of children were born simply so their parents would have someone to change the channel.

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