THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Soccer grumps

They can’t kill the thrill of watching athletes at the top of their game

(Vanessa Brantley Newton for The Boston Globe)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / July 17, 2011

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THE MEN who hate soccer will always hate it and sports radio guys like Gerry Callahan will always find a way to degrade the female athletes he calls “soccer chicks.’’

Giving his take on Team USA’s recent World Cup victories, Callahan told his WEEI audience that he didn’t want to upset the “soccer nuts.’’ But that didn’t stop him from insulting Abby Wambach, whose dramatic goal scoring gripped fans who appreciate the speed, strength, and intensity it takes to play the game the way she does. “How big is she?’’ Callahan asked his co-hosts with trademark sarcasm. “She’s built like Adrian Peterson,’’ he said, using the 6’ 1’’ Minnesota Vikings running back as a reference point. “She’s ripped . . . she’s scary . . . she has a muscular head.’’

Chauvinism lives, along with the die-hard disdain that soccer still generates. But for a growing fan base, the soccer grumps cannot kill the thrill of watching athletes at the top of their game run, kick, and will their way to the World Cup finals.

As Callahan correctly pointed out, the American players are not underdogs in this contest. Because of that, he disparages all the media coverage their victories are producing. But dominance was no reason to tune out the undefeated New England Patriots when they took on and lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. So why is it a reason to downplay today’s scheduled showdown between the United States and Japan?

Like it or not, soccer-haters, the women’s World Cup TV audience is growing. According to media reports, the United States’ quarterfinal win over Brazil earned the highest preliminary television ratings for a Women’s World Cup game since 1999, when the United States hosted and won the tournament. The US victory on penalty kicks last Sunday drew a 2.6 overnight rating, which translates to about 3.89 million viewers. They weren’t all soccer moms and their daughters; dads and brothers watched, too.

Compared with the 111 million who tuned into this year’s Super Bowl, that’s miniscule. Even Major League Baseball’s All-Star game, which sheds viewers annually, still pulled in 11 million. In soccer, as in all sports, men still outdraw women. During last year’s World Cup, an average of 11.1 million viewers watched the first three games played by Team USA, according to Nielsen Wire.

But the impact of an athletic event or one athlete’s achievement is not measured in ratings alone. You didn’t have to watch the actual baseball game to know that Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit holds great meaning in the world of sports. You didn’t have to follow every second of this summer’s World Cup competition - or even one minute - to know that this past week was a sit-up-and-take-notice moment for soccer, generally, and specifically for women’s soccer.

The narrative of victory sliced through July’s heat wave, along with the exploits of individual players: Wambach’s drive to win, leading to a tie-breaking header in the 79th minute of the game against Brazil. Goalie Hope Solo’s penalty kick save, setting up her team for victory and herself for vindication after a past falling-out with teammates. Megan Rapinoe overcoming the disappointment of not being a starter, to come off the bench and twice put the ball precisely where it needed to be so a teammate could score.

These were all dramatic moments, the kind routinely celebrated in every sport, from basketball and baseball to tennis and golf.

But the anti-soccer cranks even find a way to gripe about that. Chicago Sun Times columnist Rick Morrissey is upset that Wambach basked in the glory, after Rapinoe positioned the ball “for a fairly easy header.’’

“She [Wambach] 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,’’ he complained.

I hope Morrissey is just as disgusted every time the fellow who carries the football into the endzone does handsprings and a victory lap instead of running over to thank the quarterback who tossed it so graciously into his hands.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.