The World Cup hardly piqued my interest this semester until it seemed to be an excellent topic for small-group evaluations in my English Conversation classes.
During the evaluations, all of my students spoke excitedly about co-hosting this international soccer festival, including those students who don't normally give a hoot about the sport. Very few of them, however, said that they actually planned to attend games because of the prohibitive price of tickets, choosing rather to join friends at favorite drinking bars to cheer Korea's team. I can empathize with them over the price of tickets for I never dreamt of dropping 100 bucks on the Super Bowl when I was a college student.
Many students plan to congregate at Gwanghwamun, KOEX Plaza, or other public places to watch the matches on big screens, and where Koreans will be at a high pitch of excitement. For those students who said that they planned to be "couch potatoes" during the World Cup, I encouraged them to go to these places to demonstrate that Koreans are the lovers of soccer they claimed to be when Korea and Japan were at each other's throat over who loved soccer more when both countries were vying to host the event, resulting in the Solomonic compromise of co-hosting.
The sentiment among students is that if Korea advances to the second round, Guus Hiddink, Korea's Dutch coach, is worth every penny of his pricey salary; but if not, woe betide coach Hiddink and his supporters in the Korea Football Association.
A few of my students admitted to being Red Devils, those red-clad fanatics who live and die with the fortunes of the Korean team and whose partisan intensity is the equal of any of international soccer's most rabid fans.
Everyone agreed that the success of the World Cup hinges on both how well the Korean side performs and on how well Koreans support the soccer festival after their team bows out, especially if this should happen, heaven forbid, in the first round. I told my students that it would be a sporting gesture to adopt one of the visiting teams, say Uruguay or Costa Rica (two teams unlikely to bring many supporters with them); then to display their support by wearing that team's colors on game day. This would certainly show that Koreans are the soccer lovers they claimed to be when vying with Japan six years ago.
And I was hoping that students would demonstrate their affinity for soccer by attending Dongguk's own intramural championship game played a few weeks ago between the Business Dept. and Phys. Ed. Dept. But, alas, the game was virtually ignored by the student body save for a small contingent of supporters from both departments. The first half ended with Phys. Ed. leading by only one to nothing despite its superior offense, led by the stellar play of number 7. By the time I got back to the game in the second half, Phys. Ed. was leading 4 to 1; their relentless attack had worn down Business Dept.'s formidable goalie, whose sterling defense had kept his team in the game during the first half.
Anyone who had been sitting at the picnic tables on the porch overlooking the University playing field during the month of May would have observed the intramural soccer teams' practice sessions, followed by a series of elimination games and culminating in the championship game. When sitting there, I often observed a former A+ English Composition student of mine practicing and later playing in his department's games, a student whose "dream" is to be a soccer journalist and, therefore, to whom I introduced Rob Hughes, the International Herald Tribune's soccer pundit par excellence.
When I queried my students about the dearth of interest in the championship game, they said that they knew nothing about the game, blaming low attendance on poor promotion, and further saying that no one watches Dongguk's soccer team play, either, because they always lose. One student gave a succinct colloquial appraisal of our University's team, to wit: "They suck!"
There was a time when the World Cup elicited a collective yawn from Americans. Of course this is no longer true. Little League soccer, in fact, is more popular with American boys than is Little League baseball; and many American men under 35 have played the world's game. Yet soccer has not caught on as a spectator sport (where the money is) with Americans and has a long way to go before it does, if ever. What with the Big Three American games, Canadian ice hockey, and golf, tennis, auto racing and The WWF to compete with, I just don't see soccer carving a sizeable chunk out of the saturated spectator-sports' market. I reckon that X sports and feats of daring do have a better market potential than soccer. Consider, for example, the phenomenal success of "reality shows" such as SURVIVOR.
America's disinterest in soccer used to confound the world, which was under the delusion that once Americans embraced the game they would excel. A West Indian I was watching the 1978 World Cup (won by Argentina) with in London predicted confidently that America would win it all by 1994. Americans, on the other hand, have improved incrementally not exponentially, garnering little respect from serious soccer people, who still view America as a nation of baseball, basketball, and "football" players.
Of course I'm speaking about American men. American women are arguably the world's best soccer players, winning their share of world championships. This is a direct result of federal legislation requiring all public schools in America to expend an equal amount of their budgets on both boys' and girls' athletic programs, and because smaller American families have left many dads without sons to dote on and who therefore focus all of their attention on athletic daughters.
World Cup qualifying round victories over a Guatemala or a Granada hardly excite a nation of sports lovers who have given the world baseball, basketball, and volleyball and who have come to expect gold medals of their athletes competing in the international arena. But an American victory over a power like Brazil or Germany in World Cup play would be the great leap forward that everyone is waiting for. Until that tectonic shift occurs, the standard American soccer joke remains apt: Soccer is the game of the future in America…and it always will be.
(Note: I have used soccer rather than football throughout this essay because that's what the game is called in the English-speaking world -- the British, after all, taught the world how to play soccer and called their original teams associations, from which soccer is derived -- and because Americans have their own brand of football, a game in which kicking the ball used to play a much greater role and account for more points than it does today. The importance of kicking the ball was diminished after a quarterback by the name of Knute Rockne, from a little school called Notre Dame, decided that throwing the ball (a forward pass) was a better offensive strategy; thus revolutionizing the game 90 years ago by taking a lot of the foot out of American football.)
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