Twenty years ago today I was living in Meier, a barrio of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 1986 was notable for many things but for the rest of the world it was quite notable as a World Cup year. As a young American living abroad for the first time in my life I was quite simply unprepared for the level of intensity and devotion that the World Cup inspires in its faithful. Oh, I'd heard that it was a big deal. I'd heard that futebol (soccer) was Brazil's national sport. I'd heard that Brazilian soccer prowess was a source of national pride. But I really had no idea what I was in for. Until you've been in Rio during the World Cup, you really can't imagine what that means but let me try and give you some idea.
Take our devotion to American football, baseball, basketball, and every other sport you can imagine. Put them all together and you still fall well short. In Brazil, there is nothing, I repeat NOTHING so important as the World Cup. For months leading up to the event, the comings and goings of the Seleção (Brazil's national team) are front page news. Pelé is not just a national hero; he is a god. This goes way beyond fanaticism; way beyond devotion. To a Brazilian, soccer is life itself.
One of my strangest memories is walking through downtown Rio, one of the busiest, most crowded cities in the world, during a Brazilian World Cup match. It was the middle of the work day and the streets were quite literally deserted. There was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Other than the muffled cheers of soccer fans wafting from apartments, bars and rooftops, the streets were completely quiet. Except for bars and restaurants, every business was closed. It was the only time, day or night, that I have ever seen the city so empty. I have truly never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
I was fortunate enough to have been able to watch most of those World Cup matches in Brazilian homes. It was an experience I'll never forget. The enthusiasm was infectious. The experience was exhilarating. The excitement was unforgettable. Since then, I have made a point of following the World Cup. I know I can never recapture that excitement but every four years I can remember it.
Why is soccer such a big deal in Brazil (or the world for that matter)? And why doesn't the United States share that passion? I can think of a lot of reasons. Many Brazilians live at or below the poverty level. For them, soccer represents a way out, an escape. There are many things in which Brazil could be perceived as something less than successful. Soccer is not one of them. It is the one thing which Brazilians clearly do better than anyone else in the world (witness their record five World Cup wins) and they are justifiably proud of it. Soccer is a sport that anyone can play. You don't need money. You don't need height or bulk. You don't need special equipment. All you need is a ball and a place to play (and any street will serve for that).
Why has it never really caught on in the states? In my opinion there is one major reason: advertising. People tend to follow the sports that they are able to watch on television. If you don't know the players and you're unfamiliar with the rules of the game then you're not as likely to be interested in it. That prime-time television exposure is extremely important. American television stations tend to want to air commercial friendly sporting events. Take baseball for instance. After every at bat is a convenient break into which you can insert a brief commercial. Between every inning you can run a slew of them. American football is the same way. We even have special extra time-outs inserted in the game just so the television networks can air even more commercials. Basketball is a little more fast paced but there are still several breaks in the action which Anheuser-Busch and Friends can use to try and build a whole new generation of alcoholics. Soccer is different. There are NO breaks in soccer, other than a brief half time. The action is constant. Back before cable television, what network exec in his right mind would choose to promote a sport that doesn't give him easy access to a slew of rabid, mindless consumers?
Some Americans will tell you that soccer is too boring. It's too slow paced. That is, of course, nonsense. Only someone who is unfamiliar with the game would make that argument. After all, some of these same Americans will happily watch televised golf. The real problem is that these people don't understand what the game is about, they don't know any of the players or any of the teams, and so to them it is
boring. But to anyone who follows the game it's clearly anything but boring.
The recent explosion of pay television providers, coupled with the influx of immigrants has started to change things a little. It's now much easier to find a soccer match on television in the States than it used to be. But for the most part the damage has been done. The precedent has been set. It will take a few miracles before the United States ever embraces the Beautiful Game the way the rest of the world has. Until then, I'll still be rooting for both USA and Brazil every four years.
Vai Brasil! Mais uma vez! Let's make it SIX!