So much for Amer­i­can soc­cer

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By An­drés Martinez An­drés Martinez is a pro­fes­sor of prac­tice at the Wal­ter Cronkite School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, a for­mer editorial page edi­tor of the Los An­ge­les Times and a life­long fút­bol fan.

Jack Warner got his re­venge. In 2015, the in­ter­na­tional soc­cer chief­tain was in­dicted by the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment for rack­e­teer­ing and money laun­der­ing. On Tues­day, he re­acted to his na­tion of Trinidad and Tobago’s sur­pris­ing vic­tory over the U.S. men’s na­tional team by call­ing it the “hap­pi­est day of my life.”

Trinidad and Tobago’s 2-1 win, cou­pled with re­sults in two other matches played si­mul­ta­ne­ously in Cen­tral Amer­ica, knocked the United States out of next sum­mer’s World Cup in Rus­sia. It will be the first World Cup since 1986 that doesn’t fea­ture the United States as one of the men’s teams rep­re­sent­ing CON­CA­CAF, the con­fed­er­a­tion of North Amer­i­can, Cen­tral Amer­i­can and Caribbean na­tions that Warner is al­leged to have ruled so cor­ruptly from 1990 un­til 2011.

The fail­ure to qual­ify de­rails what had been the pre­vail­ing nar­ra­tive of in­evitable and ir­re­versible Amer­i­can as­cen­dancy. Once a laugh­ing­stock in world soc­cer (we didn’t at­tend a sin­gle World Cup between 1950 and 1990), the U.S. had be­come in re­cent decades one of two re­gional pow­ers, along with Mex­ico. Amer­i­can fans had come to see World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion as a birthright and were more likely to de­bate when we’d win our first tour­na­ment than to sweat the te­dious qual­i­fy­ing process.

And yet we failed, which at least pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to take stock of our coun­try’s per­plex­ing and pe­cu­liar re­la­tion­ship with the world’s most pop­u­lar sport.

Sport is the one as­pect of global pop­u­lar cul­ture not dom­i­nated by the United States. What binds the world to­gether are Amer­i­can mu­sic, Amer­i­can movies, our lan­guage — and soc­cer. Our games have fol­low­ings out­side our bor­ders, sure, but they’re pal­try com­pared with soc­cer’s. Cris­tiano Ron­aldo has three times more In­sta­gram fol­low­ers than LeBron James.

Mean­while, though played by more Amer­i­can kids than any other sport, soc­cer can’t shake its for­eign taint. In a na­tion so ac­cus­tomed to win­ning, the at­ti­tude of many sports fans not yet sold on soc­cer has evolved over the years from an adamant “no way am I fol­low­ing that bor­ing game” to a grudg­ing “OK, fine, show me we can win, and I’ll get on board.” On that score, the 11 U.S. men on that wa­ter­logged Trinida­dian field Tues­day night faced an un­bear­able bur­den that should not be placed on them.

The rest of the world was prob­a­bly made giddy by the loss. Warner had his own churl­ish rea­sons for say­ing that “no­body in CON­CA­CAF likes the U.S.” as part of his cel­e­bra­tory re­marks, but it’s also true that many fans across the world (if not com­mer­cial spon­sors with a vested in­ter­est in grow­ing rev­enue) were pleased to see the U.S. fail to qual­ify for Rus­sia. We won’t be beat­ing the world at their game, at least not yet.

Amer­ica’s pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball, foot­ball and baseball leagues will, of course, tell you that the great global con­test isn’t the one for soc­cer supremacy, but the cul­tural and busi­ness ef­fort to chip away at soc­cer’s mar­ket share by ex­pand­ing the reach of our own sports. The NBA in par­tic­u­lar has done an impressive job of grow­ing its over­seas fan base.

But soc­cer will re­main the global sport for the fore­see­able fu­ture, and one un­her­alded de­vel­op­ment — amid all the con­ster­na­tion of how Amer­i­cans are do­ing on the field — is the quiet off-field en­croach­ment of U.S. in­ter­ests.

It’s noth­ing new that Amer­i­can multi­na­tion­als like Coca-Cola, Visa and Nike are stake­hold­ers in global soc­cer; more novel is the fact that Amer­i­cans are now ac­quir­ing di­rect own­er­ship stakes in the sport. Ar­guably the three most iconic English clubs in what has be­come the most fol­lowed do­mes­tic sports league in the world — Manch­ester United, Liver­pool and Arse­nal — are con­trolled by Amer­i­can in­vestors, who also own, re­spec­tively, the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers, the Bos­ton Red Sox and the Los An­ge­les Rams.

The Depart­ment of Jus­tice’s 2015 sweep­ing in­dict­ment of more than a dozen man­darins of the world’s sport, in­clud­ing Warner, was an­other mile­stone in the offfield Amer­i­can­iza­tion of soc­cer, one that shocked the rest of the world. Vladimir Putin com­plained at the time that “the U.S.A. def­i­nitely has noth­ing to do with this,” and called the pros­e­cu­tions “yet an­other ob­vi­ous at­tempt to spread their ju­ris­dic­tion to other coun­tries.”

Rus­sia’s leader might as well have said, “Why don’t you just stick to your games, and leave soc­cer to us?” He’ll get his wish at his own World Cup, but it likely will be a tem­po­rary respite. For FIFA, the sport’s gov­ern­ing body, the U.S. is one of the two emerg­ing soc­cer mar­kets that rep­re­sent the largest fi­nan­cial up­side for its mar­quee tour­na­ment. (The other is China, an­other na­tion that failed to make the ros­ter of 32 teams headed to Rus­sia.) And given our sheer num­bers, our de­mo­graph­ics and our or­ga­ni­za­tional prow­ess at the youth level, even­tual suc­cess seems likely, re­gard­less of whether Amer­i­can au­di­ences re­ally care.

De­spite Tues­day’s loss, Amer­i­cans and soc­cer are still des­tined for each other, over the long haul.

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