Dartmouth and the U.S. out of tune with World Cup

by Rob Kim | 6/24/02 5:00am

With the great number of upsets and controversial calls, this year's World Cup has been one of the most unpredictable yet enjoyable tournaments in recent history. Both Korea and Japan have produced a more than adequate World Cup, and fan fervor has been absolutely astounding at the venues.

One of the surprises of the tournament has been the play of the U.S. team, which has been bolstered by strong play from its young speedsters, such as DaMarcus Beasley, and its rock-solid goalie, Brad Friedel. But while fan support has been overwhelming for teams like Brazil and Italy, just as at any World Cup, how much has popularity grown here in the U.S., especially after the Americans' recent successes and their history-making performance against Mexico in single-elimination? Moreover, how have the Cup and the U.S.'s fortunes affected Dartmouth students in particular?

Although more media attention has gone the U.S. team's way and people are actually starting to talk about soccer seriously, several factors have hindered more fan involvement in what's happening across the Pacific.

The primary obstacle has been TV time and coverage: with the 14-hour time difference between Korea/Japan and the East Coast, viewership of live coverage during the early morning hours has been feeble, not to mention tape delay coverage on ABC. Says Keil Hur '05, "The terrible coverage of the World Cup has forced my mother to get cable just for this month so I can watch ESPN and ESPN 2. Kind of ridiculous how little America cares about soccer that the games are on cable."

In fact, during the first weeks of the Cup, the NBA finals, Stanley Cup finals, men's and women's golf, NASCAR, Major League baseball and French Open tennis all outranked ABC/ESPN Cup coverage according to the Nielsen ratings. This includes the U.S.'s first round match-up vs. Portugal, one of the biggest upsets of recent U.S. soccer history.

And while media coverage has expanded since the U.S.'s success, it hasn't increased by much; in such sports programs as SportsCenter, World Cup coverage does not appear until the midway point of the show, if not closer to the end. For example, on the morning of June 17th, SportsCenter did not show highlights of the U.S.'s history-making victory over Mexico, which was the first American World Cup knockout victory ever, until after Tiger's victory at the U.S. Open and full baseball coverage, which entailed one solitary game, and multi-part analysis.

Most Dartmouth students have not watched World Cup soccer on TV, not even the U.S. matches, at least not live: "Especially with the recent NBA/NHL playoffs, It seems like the US has enough sports entertainment from MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL, so unfortunately the World Cup has seemed almost like overkill," said David Jung '05. Barbara Lum '04 added, "I don't really follow soccer in general, so the early morning matches have made it difficult for me to get into the tournament."

With no surprise, the few Dartmouth students that have really gotten involved with the World Cup have mostly been international students, especially those with either Japanese or Korean ties. Many international students and Japanese/Korean-Americans have paid more attention to this World Cup than ones in the past, with obvious reasons: "The fact that Korea is both a host and participant in the World Cup makes me incredibly involved. I'm not a huge soccer fan, but I watch all the Korea matches. Even with the U.S.'s good fortunes, I'm still more interested in Korea's results than I am America's," said Diane Kim '05.

Other students listed the importance of the World Cup to Korea and Japan's struggling economy, and the overwhelming sense of national pride evident in the soccer stadiums as more reasons why they have watched more soccer this year than any other. Their interest in the Cup has only been spiked with the successes of both the Korean and Japanese teams, which won both their groups and advanced to single-elimination play.

For international students, or those who have spent time abroad in areas where soccer is the sport of choice, getting into the World Cup has been considerably easier, even with the early-morning matches and sparse coverage. Said Ohene Ohene-Adu '05, an international student from Ghana, "Back home, football (soccer) is a national sport so football events such as the World Cup tend to be more exciting; as exciting as a World Series baseball game might be for an American student."

For example, when the Collis Center sponsored the first game of the World Cup (France-Senegal), a 7:25 match during finals weekend, the large crowd on hand consisted primarily of enthusiastic international students, who stated that "the significance of the World Cup made a couple of hours of finals study and sleep expendable."

"When I went on exchange to Germany, it was right during the '98 World Cup, and the U.S. was playing Germany in the first game," explained Garrett Jones '04, who has traveled extensively in Europe, including trips to both Spain and Germany, whose teams both made it into single-elimination. "I think the World Cup is more of a national event than the Olympics in most countries, which shows how much more the rest of the world cares about soccer than the U.S.."

There have been many explanations why the U.S. has not been as receptive to soccer as other countries. Although youth soccer is quite popular here in the States, attention towards the national team or the struggling MLS in the past has been weak, at best. Many American students discussed the slow and tactical pace of soccer, a different breed of sport than football and basketball. "Soccer does not have enough scoring for American tastes. We like to see lots of action and goals, but soccer is more about finesse and tactics than force and driving forward," said Todd Yezefski '04. Others explained that the difference between American and foreign interest in soccer is simply a cultural one: "In other countries, everyone plays soccer. And when it's the most popular sport to play and watch, the people will naturally follow it more than other sports," said Colleen McCaffrey '05. "Here in the U.S., soccer is just not as popular as baseball and football, so that explains why Americans are less receptive to an event such as the World Cup."

This lack of interest was shown through how much students here knew about the sport of soccer and its stars. A few were able to state favorite teams and players, but the majority of students did not follow soccer enough to mention specifics. For example, when asked to identify Miroslav Klose, the German striker and tournament co-leader in goals, most stated that they had never heard of him. The two players that the majority of students could identify were Ronaldo of Brazil and "that balding guy from France" (Zinedine Zidane). In fact, at the beginning of the Cup, before the U.S.'s consequent successes, many students couldn't even name key members of the U.S. team. Several students did name Landon Donovan, Clint Mathis and DaMarcus Beasely, but specific questions such as the U.S.'s formation and style of play went unanswered.

Fortunately, the play of the national team has significantly garnered national interest, albeit temporarily. In the past two weeks, viewership both nationally and here at Dartmouth has increased; some students have even stayed up to watch live matches. Most recently, Donovan and the U.S. team made the cover of Sports Illustrated, beating out the Stanley Cup finals, the NBA finals, and Tiger Woods' U.S. Open victory. Although that could be attributed to a weak pair of finals and the expected victory of Woods, national interest in soccer has been greater than ever before, arguably greater than in 1994, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup. But how long after World Cup fever dies down will this interest last?

"Hopefully, with the recent success of the national team, more and more Americans will start to pay attention to soccer," said McCaffrey. "As the team gets better and better, maybe people will start to take soccer more seriously, since other countries are now taking our team more seriously."