By: Katie Grosser
It’s known universally as “the beautiful game”. Since the modern rules were set up in the 19th century in England, soccer has become one of the most popular sports in the world and is the uncontested number one in many countries. Currently, there are 208 national men’s soccer teams in FIFA, as opposed to 192 nations in the UN – that’s how global and popular the sport really is.
But the situation is different in the U.S., where soccer is overshadowed by the “Big Four” – baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey. Although there has been a major popularity surge in the States ever since it hosted the 1994 World Cup and since the creation of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996, many American players still go abroad to the more prestigious European leagues to play soccer.
At the moment, over a dozen Americans are active in Germany, playing in either the First, Second or Third Bundesliga. Why do these players still go abroad? And what can comparatively young American soccer culture learn from the older and more sophisticated German traditions?
Steven Cherundolo, captain of the First Bundesliga club Hannover 96, for which he has played for more than ten years, realized as a young teenager that he was “better at soccer than any other sport” and wanted to play professionally. Cherundolo, now 31, never played in MLS and decided at sixteen that he “needed to go to Europe. Now there is a future for young players in MLS, which wasn’t the case when I was a kid, and it’s not necessary to leave the States to be a professional anymore. When I was 18 or 19, MLS did exist but Europe was already in my head.”
Photo courtesy of: Hannover 96
Most other players, however, have been active in MLS, such as Amaechi Igwe, 22, who currently plays for the Second Bundesliga club FC Ingolstadt 04. He was with New England Revolution in the States, but eventually left MLS. “It was always a dream of mine to play in Europe. I took a chance and it worked out. Growing up in the U.S. soccer world, you always hear the story, almost like a myth, about the player that had the connection in Europe and took the opportunity and I am a prime example of that. My father had a connection in Germany who believed I had the potential to make it abroad and I didn’t hesitate.”
Is it just a dream these young players are chasing when they leave for Europe, or is there really a difference in the way the game is played? After all, soccer is a universal game with universal rules and regulations. Kenny Cooper, 25 (note: will turn 26 on October 21), striker for the Second Bundesliga Club TSV 1860 München, loves the universal character of soccer. “To me, one of the beautiful things about soccer is that the game is played with the same round ball, ten field players, and a goalie in Germany, the United States, and around the world. So while there may be some differences in how the game is played from one country to another, it is still the same game.”
Hence, differences do exist, and they do so not only on the field, but off the field as well. The style of play in the U.S. is not the same as the style in Germany or anywhere else in the world. “In the States, the game is very fast paced because of the overall athleticism of players”, explains Igwe, “as opposed to Germany, where players are a bit more tactically and technically sound.”
Unlike in the U.S., soccer in Germany has fewer other sports competing with it off the field. “Fußball” is omnipresent in the media and many of the top players have celebrity status. After the World Cup in South Africa, the question arose as to who would be the captain of the German national team – Michael Ballack, who had been injured and wasn’t able to partake in the championship, or Philipp Lahm, who served as captain during the World Cup. A public debate soon erupted with leading national tabloids taking sides and front-page coverage in many newspapers. “In Germany the passion and loyalty of the players and fans for the game, the city they live in and their team is so woven into their lives that it becomes a part of their culture”, Igwe says. “It’s not really something American players or fans can learn, it’s something that is developed over time. But I do think the MLS and U.S. soccer are on the right path.”
In Germany, as in many parts of Europe, there isn’t just a soccer culture – soccer is part of culture. Even those who don’t actively play understand the game. “The nuances in the game aren’t as well known in the States as [they are] in Europe”, Cherundolo says. With its 100-year history in Europe as opposed to a twenty-year history in the States, “the average American fan probably isn’t as knowledgeable as the average European fan. But that’s a hard comparison to make. Time will tell. The more interested Americans become, the more they will learn and the more attracted they will become.”
People speculate as to why soccer is not as popular in the U.S. as in other countries. Some blame the fact that the U.S. is not dominant internationally in this sport, or that the games end in too many ties and there is not enough scoring, which supposedly bores the American fans (those who believe in the latter argument obviously have never sat through a baseball game). The most convincing reason is probably that the U.S. simply has a lot of popular sports and that there is an abundance of choice.
Besides, it’s not as if soccer was not popular at all before the 1990s – it just wasn’t seen as a game for adults. Soccer is one of the most widely played kids’ sports and even today, more children than adults play soccer. “In a sense, most kids start out in the USA with soccer. They stop sometime because they feel there is no future in it. There was no future in it when I was growing up”, says Cherundolo. Most boys stop when they enter high school, opting for other sports such as American football. Soccer is considered to be a game for children and in many ways, soccer is still growing up in America. It may, however, have already reached its adolescent stage.
After all, big names are entering MLS. “I think soccer in America is fantastic and will continue to grow”, says Cooper. “I also think that it is a very exciting time for soccer in America with the arrival of world class players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Rafael Marquez.”
These players are now in similar situations as their American counterparts are in Europe. “Adjusting to life in Germany has been both challenging and enjoyable”, says Cooper. “For example the language. It hasn’t been easy to learn, but I have enjoyed trying. I just finished a German course, and my English-German dictionaries are never far from me.” Igwe also takes German lessons, but both players say that the fact that many of their teammates speak English makes it easier to communicate with them.
Soccer may divide people, pitching team against team and fan against fan, but it is also brings together countries and cultures like almost no other sport can. “Living in another country can really open your eyes to new things and that is something I really appreciate”, says Cooper. Cherundolo agrees. “The German culture has grown on me and I like it and the German life. It’s not something I push away.” But he adds that even after ten years, he is “definitely American and it’s not something you can push away, nor would I want to.”
It’s probably still too soon to start talking about the “Big Five”, but soccer in the U.S. is definitely up and coming. “Soccer in America will continue to grow as long as the MLS keeps expanding and reaching out to more people because the league is still very young but making tremendous strides every year”, Igwe predicts. “The fans have always been there. It’s just a matter of publicity and recognition for the MLS to get the fans to the games so they can see there is quality and great potential within MLS. Soccer will eventually be on the same level as football, basketball and baseball in the US because it’s the only sport [in which] a person [who is] 5’5” can compete professionally on the field with a person [who is] 6’5”.”
Cherundolo thinks it’s hard to predict whether soccer will ever reach the popularity of the “Big Four.” “That’s impossible to say. The [soccer] culture is growing and when does it stop? Soccer’s growth in America is following globalization. The closer the word comes together the more it grows because America is influenced by other countries.” After all, Europe has a seventy year advantage and, says Cherundolo, “that will take some time to catch up.” As of now, Europe remains the ultimate dream for many young American players.