America embracing soccer in a big way will be good for the world

Few countries have used sports as a diplomatic tool as well as the United States

By Chidanand Rajghatta

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Published: Wed 30 Nov 2022, 8:20 PM

Last updated: Wed 30 Nov 2022, 10:14 PM

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else, Winston Churchill once observed sagely. The remark was purportedly aimed at the late US entry into World War II. Tales of American exceptionalism are legion. After all, this is only one of three countries in the world - Liberia and Myanmar are the other two -- that continue to reject the metric system, clinging fiercely to imperial measures such as gallons and miles, rather than litres and kilometres.

No surprise then that when football is acknowledged to be the world's most popular sport, played in nearly 200 countries by more than 20 million people and watched by perhaps 2 billion, it is way down the pecking -- or kicking – order in the United States. Here, "American football," which the rest of the world thinks is akin to rugby, rules. What the rest of the world calls football, Americans call 'soccer'.

American football involves both handling and kicking not just the "ball" ( which is more of a prolate spheroid than a conventional round ball), but also meting out the same treatment to those who even remotely threaten to come into possession of the ball. The columnist George Will once described the game as "committee meetings punctuated by violence." In fact, perhaps next only to boxing, American football has arguably more concussions per game than any other sports.

Yet, the American National Football League (NFL) is the world's richest sports franchise by some distance. It generated an estimated $ 16 billion in 2021, more than double the English Premier League's $ 7.4 billion. Baseball and basketball are the next most popular sports in America. Football, or soccer, comes a distant fourth. In fact, such is the indifference Americans have had towards football/soccer that for long years they ceded administration of the game to an immigrant. Allahabad-born Sunil Gulati, a Columbia University economics lecturer, was the President of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) from 2006 to 2018.

Going by the heady developments in Qatar this week, including Tuesday's US victory over Iran and its passage into the knockout round of 16, Gulati has done a splendid job. In fact, his achievement in bumping up women's soccer in America (the US women are the world's #1 ranked team) is even more impressive. Major League Soccer founder Alan Rothenberg once called him "the single most important person in the development of soccer in this country."

All this augurs well for the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which the United States will co-host with Canada and Mexico. Gulati was instrumental in snagging the 2026 hosting for America, even as he failed to thwart Qatar's 2022 bid. In fact, it now looks likely that the US may be the only North American team to progress into the last 16, with Canada out of it and Mexico's position looking shaky. And if the US beats the much-favoured Netherlands and progresses into the final eight – and setting up a potential clash against France or Argentina – expect the soccer craze to ignite to unprecedented levels.

It is already looking good. Tuesday’s game against Iran had a big viewership, also because of the political potency of the game. Children came home from school at 4pm and excitedly announced that the US won the game – because teachers switched classroom TV to the game for the final two hours. Wife confirmed workplace tv was also tuned into the game. President Biden himself returned to the stage after a rally and grabbed the microphone to exult over the US win. Christian Pusilic became an overnight hero with one of sporting compatriots tweeting that he had laid his crown jewels on the line for the country – an allusion to the pelvic injury he suffered as he crashed into Iranian goalkeeper while scoring. It was a typical American performance, a battering ram of a goal. Pusilic himself tweeted from a hospital bed saying he will be ready for Saturday’s game against the Dutch, who briefly colonized a city they named New Amsterdam before the British cadged it out of their hands and renamed it New York.

America embracing soccer in a big way will be good for the world. Few countries have used sports as a diplomatic tool as well as the United States. Most famously, it engendered the term ping-pong diplomacy when it used table-tennis in the early 1970s to reset ties with China after a period of isolation and distrust. Washington has deployed its NBA stars as part of its diplomatic outreach, but basketball lacks the universal appeal of soccer – and much of the world lacks the additional inches Americans seem to have. Football provides a more level playing field. FIFA World Cup 2026 in America will have a roster of 48 countries, expanded from the current 32. Every country that makes the cut will be eager to show its prowess. Americans even more so. So much better than duking it out on battlefields.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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