Many former youth soccer players remember the embarrassing picture button pins that our moms wore to our soccer games to cheer us on in our recreational soccer days as a youngster. We all played it, we all loved it. For a countless amount of us, it was our first sport. So why did only a handful of us stick with it?
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, but in America, few people can even name a professional American soccer team, let alone players. When it comes to football we all know who Payton Manning and Tim Tebow are. It’s easy for us to name off countless basketball and baseball players as well. Soccer just isn’t at that level in America.
“Back home soccer is the number-one sport,” said Yerbol Zhakupov, a Michigan State University senior from Kazakhstan. He is a big fan of the game of soccer and has noticed many differences between the culture of the sport back home and here in America.
“I think one of the reasons it is so popular is the influence from big European tournaments such as the Champions League. Sometimes people back home have to stay up until three or four a.m. to watch the European games. Another reason it’s so popular is that soccer is a simple and affordable sport. All you need is ball. When I was a kid, there weren’t many soccer fields, so we would just play in an open field. Instead of the goal, we would use bricks, bottles or something else to designate the goals,” said Zhakupov.
Zhakupov said he was not surprised that soccer is not the most popular sport here in America because there are so many other sports. He believes that it’s easy for people to get bored during soccer because sports like basketball and football have a lot of commercials and activities in between their breaks to keep people entertained, when soccer has two 45-minute periods with a short 10 minute break in between.
In Kazakhstan when there are big events such as the World Cup, or Champions League on television, people get together to watch the games. Zhakupov said that during the World Cup, games are shown everywhere. Bars, restaurants, and other public places designated for entertainment like bowling alleys, and billiards are usually filled with soccer loving people.
“There is no such thing as tailgating though. Maybe one day I will introduce this awesome pre-game tradition,” said Zhakupov.
MSU Student Perspective
Michigan State Freshman Sean Conerty, a midfielder for the Spartan men’s soccer team also notices the different views of soccer here in the U.S. Conerty has been playing since he was four years old and says that when he plays soccer, nothing else is on his mind.
“I’m not bothered by the unpopularity of it here. It’s the sport I love and no one else has to, although they are missing out,” declared Conerty. “The only time I really notice it is when you compare it to other sports. The most we’ve had at our games is about a thousand, while home football games fill up the whole stadium that seats 75,000 or so and the Breslin fills up the whole venue during Men’s basketball games as well,” said Conerty.
Conerty admits that he watches European leagues more than American leagues. The reason for that being that there is far better competition and teams. Conerty recalls going to Europe this past summer to train and he could clearly see differences.
“One of the clubs we trained at had a facility with housing. It was a school just for kids that played soccer. They would go to classes, then come out and train the rest of the day and they would even have fans at their training sessions,” Conerty said.
A History of Soccer
Peter Alegi, an associate professor and soccer and global sports expert at MSU, has a contrasting view on the popularity of soccer in America. He believes instead of focusing on soccer as “unpopular”, we have to look at the history of the sport in order to fully understand the journey it has gone through.
Alegi pointed out that in the 1880s soccer was really the only organized American sport besides baseball, which started in the 1870s. Soccer was huge when it first started. In the 1920s, the United States had one of the top professional teams in the world.
“In fact, at the time when the American Soccer League was created, [the teams were] paying so well that many excellent players from Scotland and England came to play for them,” said Alegi.
The Great Depression is what put a damper on soccer organizations in America.
“The ASL was [at its] largest in the 20’s, but in 1929 the crash really undermined the fan base,” reported Alegi. Then of course, WWII did not help.
Professor Alegi pointed out that when televised sports became big in the 1960s, unfortunately at that time soccer didn’t have a professional league. Therefore, TV was the tool that other professional sports teams used to become extremely popular.
Alegi noted that by the time the World Cup came to the United States in the 1994, it was the best attended World Cup in the history of World Cups. “These are signs that rather than focusing on the unpopularity of the game in the United States, it’s really about the growth and decline. It has never been absent. In fact, right now I think we’re at a peak,” Alegi said proudly.
When it comes to Americans watching European soccer, Alegi encourages it.
“I think that is one of the drivers. In other words, how can American soccer get better if we’re not engaging in the highest quality game overseas? That’s how kids learn their moves and that’s how their imagination grows and develops. You always want to follow the best,” said Alegi.
Professor Alegi says that he doesn’t think soccer is going to become like baseball, football, or basketball, but it doesn’t mean that one should look at soccer in America as unpopular. It may never get to a super bowl level to where it can focus the attention of a nation, but Alegi truly believes we are moving in that direction.