The Collegian
Friday, August 12, 2022

U.S. love of soccer is lacking

"Soccer is the world's favorite sport."

I have this habit of using movie and TV quotes to describe real-life situations - sometimes my own sisters can't tell whether I'm quoting or talking - and this quote from "She's the Man" came to mind as I watched the U.S. Women's Soccer National team play South Korea at UR Stadium last Saturday.

But sadly, this game reminded me that while soccer may be the world's favorite sport, it is not America's favorite sport. I often feel that UR Stadium is empty at Richmond football games, but Saturday's announced attendance was 3,387.

To put that in perspective, there were 16,151 at the football game against James Madison University, 8,012 for the University of Maine and Towson University games and 5,168 at the rain-soaked Homecoming game against Georgetown University.

Now I wasn't expecting Richmond students to fill the stands on Saturday, because the majority of people who come to UR Stadium for football games aren't students at Richmond. But I did think that more people from the City of Richmond would come watch the 2008 gold medalists.

I lived in Richmond from 1994 to 1999; my friends and I played rec-league soccer during the fall and spring, and a number of my friends played on travel teams as well. I know soccer is still a popular sport here, and I've seen children from those same teams come to First Market Stadium to watch Richmond soccer games.

The city is often criticized for its inability to support professional sports, especially now that the Richmond Braves have left for Georgia, but the Richmond Kickers professional soccer club has been playing at UR Stadium since 1993.

On Saturday, the cheers were loudest for Angela Hucles, who led the team with four goals in Beijing, is from Virginia Beach and went to the University of Virginia.

Part of the problem may be that it's November and the Olympics were over in August, and in a team sport like soccer, each person isn't as well known, but I was surprised that there weren't more people there to watch Hucles play.

The person I was most excited to see was Briana Scurry, the goalkeeper on the 1999 World Cup team; I can still remember exactly where I was when I watched the team win. The most memorable moment may have been Brandy Chastain taking her shirt off after the final penalty kick, but it wouldn't have been a game-winning kick if Scurry hadn't saved China's third penalty kick.

I remember how much coverage that team received, but the U.S. coverage of the 2008 Olympics was more focused on swimming, gymnastics, basketball and even beach volleyball. Americans did win gold medals in these four sports, so I can't fully argue with the decision, but I was completely surprised when I heard that the women's soccer team had won the gold medal because I'd barely heard anything about its games.

It's interesting to me how few people in the United States value this sport that's so popular internationally. My boyfriend is obsessed with soccer, but he calls it football because he follows teams in the Union of European Football Associations.

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When we watched the 2006 men's World Cup, he was rooting for England, not the United States. And though the patriotic part of me was outraged, some of the stories the announcers told about European fans made me realize how devoted they were to the sport, and it made me sad that there wasn't that same enthusiasm in the United States.

I can't completely disparage the fans on Saturday - the ones who showed up were loud. They started a "U-S-A!" chant during the first half, and the uproar when Hucles scored the first U.S. goal was impressive.

But I remembered one of my mom's favorite stories about the Brazilian exchange student who stayed with her family when she was in high school. At the first dinner after she arrived, my mom's family realized how little English she knew and was struggling to make conversation with her.

All of a sudden, my grandfather realized something he did know about Brazil. Pele was an internationally known Brazilian soccer player, and my grandfather, who used to write sports columns of his own, knew who he was.

He got up out of his chair, started making a kicking motion with his foot, and said, "Pele!" He had to repeat this a few times, but eventually her eyes lit up and she said, "Pele!" back to him.

It barely constitutes an actual conversation, but it was my grandfather's way of making a connection to her culture. But if I were to go to another country today, what are the chances that the athlete I'd be asked about first would be a soccer player?

There is that commercial for New Era baseball hats where people in Japan take pictures with an American because he's wearing a Boston Red Sox hat and they think he's David Ortiz. And the U.S. Olympic men's basketball players were practically assaulted as they walked through Wukesong Indoor Stadium in Beijing.

I'm not saying that we should value these people any less, because I'm guilty of watching more basketball, football and baseball than I watch soccer. But it's clear that this sport is much more popular among people who call it football, not soccer.

These women were an important part of the group of athletes who represented the United States in Beijing this year. As I watched the game and got a chance to talk to some of them afterward, I remembered how much fun soccer games could be, and I wished there were more people there to celebrate their success.

Contact editor Barrett Neale at barrett.neale@richmond.edu

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