Forgive the somewhat crass headline. The following won’t be an anti-soccer rant, it won’t ignore the sport’s international popularity, and it certainly isn’t dismissive of patriotism.
If this is to be anti-anything, it’s head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and, really, he’s not entirely in the wrong either.
On multiple occasions dating back to December, the German-born coach has gone out of his way to tell the world that our beloved country cannot compete in this year’s World Cup.
“Talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic,” Klinsmann told the media last Wednesday in his pre-tournament news conference in Brazil. It was at least the third time we’ve heard a variation of the same message.
Of course, we in the media run with that headline even though, in context, the coach’s main point was that the US still needs to survive the “Group of Death” (also featuring Germany, Portugal, and Ghana). After that, who knows? Even then, however, no run a la the Miracle on Ice is expected from his club because it simply isn’t equipped to compete.
Brazil (11-to-4 odds), with a record five titles. Argentina (4-1). Spain (6-1). Germany (6-1). These were the favored few to begin the tourney.
The Red, White, and Blue stand at 250-1 favorites to win it all entering tonight’s first match with Ghana (the team that ousted the United States from the last two World Cups), right alongside South Korea.
We’re not talking about Australia – at the bottom of the pack at 3000-1 odds – but, in the grand scheme, we may as well be. The chances aren’t good for the Americans this year. They aren’t good most any year.
The United States, 13th in the official FIFA world rankings at the start of the competition, has never won the World Cup. It last reached a quarterfinals appearance in 2002 and finished in the eighth position. Other than that, the U.S. has finished between 12th (2010) and 32nd (1998) since 1990 after failing to qualify for the tournament from 1954-86.
Coach Klinsmann is guilty of one thing more than any other: Telling us how it is.
Many have wondered, “What kind of message does this send a country trying to grow a sport and finally put soccer on the map for the mainstream?” Or, ignoring that, “What the heck does that do for his players?” Is Klinsmann a deft motivator, or simply deaf to the American way? We’re about winning here (often to the point of arrogance), or at the very least believing we have a chance.
For me – and I can’t be alone – Klinsmann’s repeated efforts to temper fan expectations have squashed any enthusiasm I may have been able to conjure up for this showcase.
Full disclosure: I’m not a soccer fan. I don’t hate or even dislike the sport; I’m just not terribly interested in it. I didn’t grow up playing it beyond the single-digit ages, and neither did any of my friends. Perhaps I was victimized by living in a community that wasn’t soccer-strong.
More to the point, in a sports “town” with historic franchises like the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots all going through waves of success this century, it’s been hard for me to even casually make room for the Revolution. I’ll readily admit that’s my loss, especially with New England playing tremendously this season. One day I hope to come around.
For most people in America, the World Cup is about more than soccer; it’s about national pride. Just consider the sports we watch, discuss, and passionately get behind at the Olympics. Swimming? Gymnastics? Track and field? Slopestyle? Figure skating? If our guys have a chance at the gold, some segment of people will be in front of their televisions.
A compelling run by Klinsmann’s club through group play and into the knockout rounds could change my perception. A winner-take-all tournament of basically any kind warrants attention.
But for now, it’s awfully difficult to get interested in something – even the world’s game – when the bar has been set so low or is entirely removed. What makes a loser lovable is that, at its core, it believes in itself even when others don’t.
I have no doubt Klinsmann’s players have faith in in themselves and their abilities but if their coach doesn’t – or repeatedly publicly indicates as much – how can fans? We don’t watch merely to be entertained and we certainly don’t sit there for the offense; we devote our time and energy to seeing wins. Without that, emotionally, it makes a World Cup match no more enticing than a friendly.
Soccer fans, and there are millions – just as many as there are Major League Baseball supporters of a certain age group if you believe a recent poll – need help growing their game in this country in order to be viewed as a major sport. The World Cup, win or lose, is an immense part of that, but it starts with being captivated by and believing in the product. In the end, potential new fans simply need something to rally around.
Klinsmann, accomplished as a World Cup winning player for Germany in 1990 and a semifinalist as a coach for the Germans in 2006, has contributed to removing that for the casual spectators. It may not be part of his native culture, but there should be no bigger salesman for the game of soccer right now than the national team’s coach. Instead, the message has been 'nothing to see here,' a glorified 'wait ‘til next year' – if next year was in four years. That doesn’t breed fandom, especially when the guy delivering the message likely knows what he’s talking about.
Some have commended Klinsmann, or at least defended him, for not setting unfeasible expectations or goals for fans or to appease the media. That’s ridiculous. There’s a difference between going out and saying, “We intend to win”, which would sound embarrassingly foolish in a tourney they’ve never captured, versus “We’re playing to win” or “We’ll do the best we can.” You get the point. Stating that winning is unrealistic straight out of the shoot may be pragmatic, but it’s also unnecessary. It leaves an overwhelming feeling of “so, why bother,” surrounding the team from fans, media, everyone.
For people with a like-minded interest in the sport to me, that’s enough to dampen enthusiasm and point my attention elsewhere; not much different than turning off a movie you heard was pretty good only 15 minutes into a slow start when you didn’t really feel like checking it out in the first place.
I hope Klinsmann is right in passing on aging but famed scorer Landon Donovan and fielding a young roster that he feels will develop enough to truly challenge in 2018. I wish I didn’t have to wait that long for the coach to maybe give his team a fighting chance.
It would have been nice to entertain the notion for a few weeks but, as he said, the Americans “cannot win the World Cup” and everyone knows it like never before.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
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