Three days before Independence Day, the US hopes of advancing in the World Cup came to an end Tuesday night – and the country feels dejected.
For America, a longstanding emerging nation at the margin of the football world, this is quite a new experience. Who would have thought that the sport that used to be seen as a foreign curiosity could actually stir up emotions?
The day after Team USA’s 1-2 defeat against Belgium in the round of 16, the pundits of the political chattering class on cable TV were still trying to make sense of what happened and why.
The answer is simple: the Americans lost and Belgium was better. But the fact that people at home, at work and on TV analyze the game, weigh in on individual and collective performances, scrutinize the coach’s decision is proof that football has finally infiltrated American culture, almost unknowingly.
During the World Cup, you could hear the same popular punditry in US sport bars as in Italian tavernas, English pubs and German kneipen.
And yet, they still call it soccer!
Much to the regret of some right-wing commentators who still believe that football is un-American, TV ratings hit records, watch parties popped up in private homes and backyards, fans packed saloons and restaurants to watch the World Cup games.
In an attempt to find explanations for the fabulous football frenzy, some point to Brazil’s time zone being favorable for American viewers. But that still doesn’t explain why people skip office time to follow the games at noon and at four in the afternoon.
Others suggest that football’s spike is simply the result of changing demographics and a growing Hispanic population in the United States. But most Hispanics are around for a long time and very often root for their ancestors’ home country like Mexico.
And this time, the surge in football interest is not limited to the urban metro areas on the West Coast and in the Northeast where a lot of foreign nationals and ethnic minorities live.
At every US game, viewers of the sport channel ESPN were shown pictures from huge watch parties in Kansas City and Chicago, both located in America’s heartland in the Midwest.
The viewing event of the game US vs Belgium in Chicago was even moved from the usual venue at Grant Park to the Soldier Field stadium to accommodate a crowd of 25,000 fans.
A remarkable thing happened in Washington, DC. When the US played Germany in group G, the German embassy sponsored a big outdoor viewing in the heart of the bustling Dupont Circle neighborhood. Several thousand people showed up on a Thursday morning.
When Team USA eventually advanced to the round of 16, fans were taken aback that no such event was scheduled in the nation’s capital for the game against Belgium. But then the government of the District of Columbia stepped in and hastily organized a watch party on Freedom Plaza, two blocks from the White House.
Needless to say that, again, thousands of fans transformed the place into a human ocean of stars and stripes, despite a sweltering heat of close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).
Most of the people in the audience were twenty-somethings which is a clear sign that the football-loving kids of the Millenial generation have now become consumer adults. They grew up playing the game, both on the pitch and on PlayStation, they know the international cast of characters, the chants, the finer points of tactics.
They had a hard time watching Team USA exiting the World Cup. But they still have their hero, goalkeeper Tim Howard (35). With a record 16 saves, he played the game of his life. “Gosh, we were right there,” he said afterwards. “We nearly had it.”
The World Cup 2014 has finally taken football to the hearts of Americans.
(Footnote: After the game, someone briefly changed the Wikipedia entry for the United States Secretary of Defense from Chuck Hagel to Tim Howard. Including photo!)