Much of the world’s population is watching as the FIFA World Cup tournament unfolds this month in South Africa. The monthlong soccer spectacle began June 11 and continues through Sunday, July 11.
A majority of those fans, however, will be outside the United States, where soccer never has been able to gain the popular foothold it enjoys in many of the world’s nations.
Several reasons exist for this phenomenon, says Stephan Schindler, PhD, professor and chair of Germanic languages and literatures in Arts & Sciences, who has taught courses on the global culture of soccer.
“In the United States, football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey compete with each other, and it is difficult for soccer to gain any momentum in this crowded sport space,” says Schindler, also professor of comparative literature and of film and media studies, both in Arts & Sciences.
The moment soccer became known as a working-class sport, around 1910, it was associated with labor unions and even socialism and thus was unacceptable for many Americans, he says.
“Although there is enough corporate sponsorship available — and although many young Americans play soccer — there is not the kind of local identification with a team that drives European soccer,” Schindler says. “For an American audience, soccer might be considered boring because of its low scoring.
“And, there aren’t many statistics available for individual players, compared to baseball, for example,” he says. “In soccer, the team counts more than the individual player.”
While popular support for soccer has remained stagnant in this country, the game has exploded as a worldwide attraction.
“I think the game is so popular because the rules are simple, one only needs a ball to play, and games can be played with any formation of players, from two to dozens,” Schindler says.
Also, in Europe especially, teams enjoy incredibly loyal local support.
“Soccer in Europe has almost a religious following,” Schindler says. “The sport is organized into club teams that belong to a neighborhood and teams represent value systems or local identification.”
For example, the Glasgow Rangers are considered Protestant, while the Glasgow Celtics are Irish Catholics. Real Madrid represents the rule of the house of Castile, while the FC Barcelona team stands for the repressed Catalan minority.
“When these clubs play each other, more than just soccer is on the line,” Schindler says. “Fans of all ages and gender follow the victories and defeats of their teams throughout the year. Entire communities can experience collective depression after a defeat of their team.”
This same alliance is repeated on the national level.
Schindler says that after West Germany defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in the 1974 FIFA World Cup final, the entire Dutch nation fell into deep depression.
“It left a scar that was only overcome when the Dutch team defeated the German team at the 1988 European championship,” Schindler says.