Thursday, July 14, 2011

World Cup overkill won’t change fact that many Americans don’t care

Abby Wambach’s dramatic header in the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals exposed the divide between those of you who sooooooo want soccer to succeed in this country and those of us who sooooooo don’t care one way or the other.
Let’s start with ESPN’s role in ramming the Women’s World Cup down our throats and making some of us want to take up a soccer-free, TV-free and, if necessary, oxygen-free existence.
The night of Wambach’s goal against Brazil, ESPN led ‘‘SportsCenter’’ with images of several seminal moments in sports history, including the United States’ ‘‘Miracle on Ice’’ upset victory against the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. Really? A hockey game that had huge geopolitical repercussions vs. a soccer game that probably won’t launch a soccer craze in the United States because nothing else has been able to launch one so far?
They’re on a par with one another?
This is why those of us on the fence or in the non-soccer camp feel browbeaten. Almost immediately, ESPN was lecturing us on What This Game Meant. We shouldn’t have been surprised to learn from the Worldwide Leader that It Meant Everything because — and this part always goes unspoken — it’s our moral obligation to love soccer the way the rest of the world does. If we don’t, we’re isolationist goobers.
The overkill was almost enough to make you gag and turn against anything having to do with this team.
The Wambach goal revealed the gap between the pro-soccer camp and the why-should-we-care soccer camp in other ways.
The pro camp saw an incredible goal and another reason to slobber all over U.S. soccer.
The rest of us saw an incredible pass all but ignored in the post-goal coronation of Wambach as all that is right about soccer, women and pretty much all of civilization.
U.S. soccer zealots, aided and abetted by ESPN, always have been in a mad rush to come up with their messiah. First it was Brandi Chastain and her bra in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Then it was Landon Donovan and his goal to stave off elimination in the 2010 World Cup, which pushed the United States into the round of 16, where we lost to Ghana, a country of 24 million people.
Now it’s Wambach.
They’ve got the wrong person. Or, to put a positive spin on it, they’ve got it only half right.
They forgot the real star
The scoring play was absolutely beautiful. Megan Rapinoe kicked the ball to the only place Wambach’s head could have hit it. The ball looked as if it traveled 40 yards in the air. The long, crossing pass went just over the head of a Brazilian defender and just beyond the hands of the Brazilian goalie. A few inches lower, and there’s no way the ball would have gotten to Wambach. But it wasn’t a few inches lower it was perfect. It was like a full-court heave into a basketball hoop just big enough to accommodate a ball.
And how did Wambach react after she headed the ball into the net? Did she celebrate with her teammates because the game was now tied 2-2 with about a minute left in overtime? Did she seek out Rapinoe, whose surgically placed pass put Wambach in position for a fairly easy header?
She did not. She did what a lot of soccer players do. She sprinted away from her teammates in order to celebrate on her own. She ran toward the stands and slid for the fans and cameras. By then, her teammates had caught up with her. They mobbed her.
The last one to arrive was Rapinoe, who jumped on Wambach.
The reaction all over the country focused on the goal-scorer. We had found the Chosen One! We had identified the new Face of Soccer! She would lead the sport to relevancy in this country!
If soccer people needed a Robin for Wambach’s Batman, Rapinoe was available. Here was someone who threaded a pass to a teammate as well as Peyton Manning ever has. But nothing. Not even a crime-fighter’s cape for her.
Empty seats say a lot
Who wants to get in the way of soccer’s ascension in this country? We’ve been reminded for years that it’s our responsibility as citizens of the world to help grow the sport here. If we’re not on board, we’re jerks.
And yet . . .
I was watching the U.S. team beat France on Wednesday to advance to the finals, and I couldn’t help but notice all the empty seats in the German stadium. Lots and lots of empty seats.
I knew I shouldn’t be noticing that. The message is supposed to be about a sport taking off before our very eyes.
But if women’s soccer is so important, why were there so many empty seats for the U.S.-France game? Europe — that’s supposed to be a hotbed for soccer, correct?
Are Germans or the French made to feel guilty about not supporting the women’s game the way we Americans always are?
They don’t seem to be feeling under siege. As a writer noted in the German magazine Der Spiegel the other day:
‘‘It’s difficult to become a fan of women’s football. Marketing strategists want to thrust a ‘new premium sport’ onto us.’’
Hello, ESPN!
And . . .
‘‘Yes, women, too, can fire in a decent cross [pass]. They can excite people with their play, at least for moments in this highly praised World Cup. But these moments are as easily forgotten as the Olympic luge. One might as well go see a musical.’’

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