World Cup 2014

Why the Yanks Don’t Get Futbol

Americans are watching more soccer than ever, but they’re watching it wrong.

Stephen M. Dowell/Getty

Every four years the same maelstrom of World Cup emotion descends on the planet; expectation in Brazil; hope in Holland; grim acceptance in England.

The only certainty in the U.S. is another round of speculation that this will be the moment soccer finally cracks America. This year the interest does seem higher than ever before; newspapers are bulking up their coverage, sports websites are trying to muscle in on the Internet traffic, and every game is being shown live on U.S. TV.

As a British member of the football-speaking world, I say: “Welcome. Come and join us.” But there is one thing you should know: You are doing it all wrong.

I’m not talking about whether or not you think it’s stupid to wear a scarf in the sunshine or if you choose to say soccer instead of football (if it’s calcio in Italian and kurat al qadam in Arabic—you can call it whatever you like), I’m talking about the very essence of the sport.

Football is a simple game, and it’s a team game. The only number that matters is the final score, so put down the calculators, nerds.

Americans’ obsession with viewing sports through the prism of individual records is ruining their enjoyment of the world’s favorite game. It doesn’t matter who has the highest shot conversion ratio; these players aren’t trying to win themselves a berth in the All Star team, or a place in the Hall of Fame.

The only thing that counts is the team: Did they win? Just look at the captain that holds the trophy aloft at the end of the tournament. As Brazil celebrated in 1970, it wasn’t Pele, the greatest goal scorer of all time, who collected the World Cup trophy, it was his harder-working, less well-known colleague Carlos Alberto, a defender.

If the sport was ruled by U.S. sports fans, perhaps Alberto would have boasted the most sacks or rebounds or something, but nobody was counting his tackles, headers or interceptions. It didn’t matter.

Sure, football fans everywhere gather with ice-cold beverages to debate which players are best but there is nothing like the same cult of individuality.

When Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice against Bayern Munich in the Champions League this April, U.S. outlets celebrated his achievement in breaking a 50-year-old record for goals by an individual player in one season. In the rest of the world, it was reported that his team, Real Madrid, had qualified for the final.

Ronaldo, incidentally, also seemed more interested in his own record breaking. That’s why nobody likes him.

No matter what the soft drink commercials and headphone companies say, football is not about the star players.

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For the most part, the players are just as vain and self-interested as American sports stars. It’s the fans that are different. If you’re too old to have a favorite color, you’re too old to have a favorite football player.

Watching the World Cup is not just about witnessing a few over-compensated superstars pulling off impressive feats. This is not a dunk contest. It’s about tapping into the emotion of a whole nation as hopes soar and optimism is dashed on the field.

Switching your own allegiance from one team to another and then another as some Americans advocate at the World Cup rather misses the point.

No African team has ever progressed beyond the quarter final, but you won’t catch those fans giving up on their own teams. Scotland have only qualified for the tournament once in the last 24 years, but that doesn’t lessen the passion for their team—in fact, it highlights and intensifies it. They are still talking about Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland in 1978, and that came in a group game that saw them eliminated from the tournament.

Team U.S.A. fans are lucky, they have a solid, positive team to get behind. The players are capable of springing a few surprises and maybe beating one of the bigger teams. Just one win in the “Group of Death” should be considered a great World Cup. Get behind your team, urge them on. Care about every goal you score, savor every great tackle. Watch the football properly.

Before you know it, you’ll have been knocked out. Then it’s time to sit back and drool over Lionel Messi—you’ll love it even more.