Did you know they play football in the United States? Not American Football, which I’m not going to talk about. If you can’t say anything nice and all that…
But proper football. It’s called soccer there (some are surprised to hear that soccer is actually a term that originated in England), and since the 70s a renaissance of football in America has been predicted and even promised.
For more than a generation, children in the US have played soccer when they were children and then as teenagers they move on to what were considered real sports. In the first half of the 20th century that might’ve been baseball and later, depending on what region of the country and whether in the farm or in the city, it could’ve been American Football, basketball or ice hockey.
The thing was: football simply wasn’t a respected sport among many Americans. To be fair, Hispanic Americans are certainly not new to football. Like the rest of the world, they get the fascination with the beautiful game. This is an understatement. They get it quite well.
Satellite television has made it possible for Americans to watch the best clubs of Europe and South America. The eventual failure of professional soccer in the 70s and early 80s made it undeniably difficult to convince anyone that there was a place for what would eventually become Major League Soccer.
My verdict after going to an MLS stadium and seeing a friendly between the Houston Dynamo and Valencia CF: it still feels like they’re trying to prove it’s real football. The stadium is shiny and new. The fans, many of whom were Hispanic and some even rooting for Valencia, were knowledgeable and passionate. The crowd erupted at the home side’s single goal and yearned for an equaliser after the clearly superior Spanish side quickly went up 2:1. The Dynamo even has loyal fans, who are notorious in the league for being louts. The stories I’ve heard of the shenanigans of the Houston team’s fans during last year’s playoffs is just another example of trying too hard to prove they’re legitimate ultras and by extension that this is legitimate football.
There was even tailgating outside the stadium, which is a great way to get American fans more comfortable going to see a sport that still gets ridiculed and denigrated. I’d love to describe that to my British friends who take football seriously. As a Yankee curiosity, that practice might be tolerated. As a football tradition, I don’t see it going very far. They’ll see you when you decide to come back to the pub.
Nevertheless, if my seven-year old niece’s response is any indication of the future success of the whole endeavour, then football has a bright future in the US. She arranged an impromptu match the next morning in the field across from where they live. She’ll likely never call it a pitch and she’ll only hear real football chants on television, but long-term I see good things happening.