Christian and I have been going back and forth on the state of soccer affairs in the US. His view is more optmistic than mine. Both of us agree that soccer will never supplant basketball as the sport that most provides stories of redemption and success in the US. The Allan Iversons and Kareem Abdul Jabbars who grew up in rough, drug infested, violence prone neighborhoods and turned to basketball, using their talent making themselves a success; in turn inspiring other youngsters in similar situations to take up basketball. I think basketball leagues in inner cities have done wonders in providing a level of social justice and self esteem that not many other games can claim. I live not too far from Riverside Church and their youth basketball league has turned out quality players from the most economically downtrodden parts of New York. Basketball has leavened the polarization of the have and have nots, seen in the increasing gentrification and ghettoization in cities.
Soccer does the same thing in many other countries especially South and Central America. In the favelas and barrios. To expect that to happen in the US is probably too naive and optimistic. But Christian believes that better times are to come for soccer. I'm not so sure. I think soccer has gone through a period of rebuilding and is played by more and more people. The introduction of the MLS has done a lot to popularize the sport and create a career for budding players.
But what soccer really has is an image problem. And to permeate further as a sport that creates the kind of opportunities that basketball does, it has to revamp its image. The most damaging thing to soccer that ever was done was the coinage of the term 'soccer mom'. With a single stroke of the pen, the sport of soccer was reduced to an electoral demographic with a manipulative intent, to woo the suburban or exurban home maker mom. And the term was not a very flattering one either. It conjures up pictures of wealthy tony suburban neigborhoods of houses with enclosures, with SUV's packed wth children of all shapes and sizes being ferried from home or school to play in emotionally charged matches where the mother screams her guts out when her child gets fouled or scores a goal. The parents of these kids are usually wealthy and white. Their children wear $150 pairs of shoes and wear protective headgear. Their backpacks are busting full with power bars and gatorade. They are equally likely to attend horse-riding and piano playing through the week. Soccer is commodified to fit a package of percieved requirements that will send these kids to an Ivy League school. Like lacrosse, soccer is altogether elite and not at all egalitarian. It is a story of surfeit, not of survival.
This is the story in the narrow side streets of Tehran, where children play soccer with every inch of space available to them dreaming of becoming the next Ali Daei; or in the beaches of Rio where future Ronaldinhos will come out and lead their club and country. Or over here, children playing basketball with makeshift hoops of milk crates hanging precariously from electric poles on street intersections of the Lower East Side.
There are some commendable efforts spearheaded by Sunil Gulati and the Olympic Development Program (ODP) that have done quite a bit to develop and extend the sport from the leafy confines of exurban Connecticut to less privileged spaces. DaMarcus Beasley is a product of the ODP. But he remains an exception.
What I have said is may not be particularly original but maybe I have done a bit to reframe the problem. The idea is to recast the story of contemporary soccer from exclusion to inclusion. With the influx of immigrants from South and Central America where soccer is a part of everyday life, the story of soccer in this country lies in their hands and the powers to be should do everything to encourage that. The vision of soccer should be assimilative, one that enhances the redemptive strength and qualties of soccer. Till then this vignette serves as a reminder of the problems soccer in this country faces. A friend of mine living in Houston recently told me that a soccer league operated by Brit expats working in the oil industry shut down because the soccer fields that they were playing on through the week, would become the site of pick up soccer matches over the weekend for lots of Hispanic immigrants driving up in their battered Chevy trucks . Worried that the immigrants and their after match carousing would drive down the prices of their million dollar homes in the enclave they lived in, they successfully lobbied the residents council to shut down soccer on that field and removed the goalposts. Now it is a pretty park that residents use to walk their dogs and play frisbee.
For more of a personal insight into the problems soccer faces, please read this excellent article by Fred Guzman