Taking A Step Back

June 26, 2011

Twenty-two minutes into the Gold Cup final on Saturday night, the United States looked like they may have been on their way to propelling Americans’ level of interest in soccer to a new level. Up 2-0 over favored Mexico, the United States was doing something that they have not been able to do very often with head coach Bob Bradley at the helm; take a commanding lead against one of the world’s elite teams. The United States team has been characterized, going back even before last year’s World Cup, as a gritty team that has the ability to claw back from early deficits. As much as this is in line with the view that Americans generally have about themselves, it is clear that until the United States can dominate the world’s elite competition like U.S. national teams in other sports are capable of doing, that “soccer fever” is just a term thrown around by those who want to believe that soccer is truly catching on in this country.

Unfortunately for the U.S. team, they were not able to hold onto the early lead that they had built. In the end, Mexico stormed back to score four unanswered goals, showing everyone in attendance at the Rose Bowl that the Americans still have some work to do if they want to call themselves a world power. However, the onslaught of goals by the Mexican team was not the biggest slap in the face to the United States. That honor would go to something that did not even happen until after the game, and it is something that is really more harmful to soccer’s popularity in the U.S. than to the team itself.

The post-game presentation ceremony, conducted by CONCACAF (the governing body for soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean), was entirely in Spanish. Two issues with this decision immediately come to mind. One is that this game was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, not Azteca Stadium or somewhere else in Mexico. The other is that Spanish was the only language in which the ceremony was conducted. No attempt to also conduct the ceremony in English was made.

It is true that the majority of the 93,000 plus crowd were supporters of Mexico, and that most (if not all) of the players on the winning team would have been able to understand what was being said during the presentation. It isn’t about convenience or which country was in the majority, though. Imagine that a sporting ceremony in Canada with multiple countries in attendance was conducted in French, but not in any other language. Also picture a hockey game in the United States in which an American NHL team was playing a Canadian NHL team, but only the American national anthem was played. In both cases, the decision made to include only one language or national anthem would come under fire. By the same token, neither of these things would ever happen, because of the P.R. disaster it would create for whatever governing body allowed it to happen.

Taking the words of U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, CONCACAF should be ashamed for its decision. However, the biggest tragedy of all is that it won’t hurt CONCACAF as much as it will Americans’ interest in soccer. The decision to conduct an international tournament’s ceremony in Spanish signals that the United States isn’t that important in the world soccer sphere. This would have never happened to a team like Spain or Germany, and it wouldn’t have happened to the U.S. in a sport like basketball.

If American public sees that the governing bodies of the sport don’t think they are an elite team and should be treated as such, then it will be hard to convince Americans otherwise. It would be foolish to think that U.S. fans would buy into a sport in which their national team is still treated as second rate around the world.

Americans want to believe that they have the ability to be the best, and last night CONCACAF asserted that they aren’t in the way they handled the post-game ceremony on American turf. Soccer in the United States just took a step back, and the game result was just the beginning of the story.

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