Reda Maher

Brazil 360: New breed of USA fans lap up World Cup like never before

Reda Maher

View gallery

.
United States fans watch the 1-0 defeat to Germany at the FIFA Fan Fest in Rio de Janeiro

“Matt’s gone missing,” Jimmy, 25 and from Ohio, admitted.

“He has the keys to our apartment and our phones aren’t working here. He’s done this before. Either I head to the other side of Rio and hope he’s awake to let me in, or I stay out all night.”

I met Jimmy and Matt in a restaurant in Lapa, before hitting a few samba clubs with some other fans. It was my first proper day off since arriving in Brazil, and I figured I’d let down what’s left of my hair.

Taking pity on Jimmy – who, like his friend Matt, is a former division one college football player – I let him crash on my floor. Rio de Janeiro is no place for a lone gringo to be wandering the streets at night, although the bustle and added security of the World Cup has made it seem a touch safer.

Jimmy and Matt are part of a legion of USA fans who, while maybe not as colourful and noisy as the Chileans and Argentines, form the biggest official group of visiting supporters in Brazil.

[FOLLOW REDA ON TWITTER]

According to FIFA, nearly 200,000 tickets to World Cup matches were sold to Americans, more than any other country bar the hosts.

Some are here to support other countries – notably Mexico – but most are very much backing the USA.

It’s a different tribe of Americans to the camera-toting, middle aged sorts that you see wandering around tourist attractions in Europe. They are younger, more open-minded and very much looking to engage with a nation that – unlike the States – boasts football as a national obsession.

Some, like Jimmy and Matt, are serious football players, with the college system at a similar level to English non-league; several of their old team-mates and opponents have gone on to play professionally in the MLS. "We know the game inside out," said Matt before he went AWOL. "We don't need to be told by anyone."

Others are just fans, some weaned on football from an early age, and some more recent converts, drawn by the nature of an international competition that is missing from many traditional American sports.

View gallery

.
Ryan (left) and Mitch, from Minneapolis

“The first experience I had of soccer was playing FIFA (the computer game) seven years ago at college,” Mitch, from Minneapolis admitted just before watching the USA’s 1-0 defeat to Germany at the Rio Fan Fest, a result which saw his team reach the last 16 of the World Cup.

“I grew up playing American football and would never have thought I’d be at a soccer World Cup five years ago.

“But from playing that game, I got interested in the real-life players, starting watching real games and got hooked.”

Mitch’s friend Ryan, also from Minneapolis, was the one who introduced him to the sport.

“We were freshmen at college, and while he had no idea about soccer, I had played right the way through high school and college.

“I also played ice hockey, but my dad encouraged me to play other sports and soccer became my favourite. In those days US club soccer was weak, and I wanted to support a team, so I went for Everton – simply because everyone else was chasing glory by being Manchester United or Liverpool fans.”

[READ ALL OF REDA'S WORLD CUP BLOGS]

Ryan even has an Everton tattoo on his leg. Football is his obsession – and he is not alone in the United States.

“The older generation is really insular, which is normal I suppose,” he explained. “Most haven’t ever left the United States, and they see ‘our sports’ as important, and soccer something for foreigners and girls.

“But they’re dying out – and I don’t mean this in a bad way – and the younger generation is more open, more international; we backpack, we study abroad, we use social networking and have friends all over the globe.

“We love the idea of taking part in a genuinely global sport – one where we are the underdog, unlike basketball. Sports like baseball are declining in popularity – and soccer is on the up.

“You can see that in the MLS – which is now able to attract players like David Villa – and in the support here. We want to be part of the world, to share experiences with people, not sit from afar telling everyone we’re the best.”

View gallery

.
Ryan's Everton tattoo

Ryan admits he usually calls the game ‘football’ but, for the sake of consistency while also discussing American football, uses ‘soccer’ in our conversation.

He points out that previously it was seen as a primarily female sport, mainly because the women’s national team is one of the most successful in the world.

His view – which is shared by US football experts – is that the college system, which insists on equal funding for sports between the genders, allowed the women’s game to flourish. But globally the men’s game is run on a free-market system, so its success in the US was limited until the more recent development of its MLS system.

“It’s funny because, in Europe, countries are run on more socialist lines than the US, yet over there soccer is totally capitalist. However, in the US, we’ve managed to tweak the system, particularly by adding marquee players to the salary caps, which is making us more competitive domestically and internationally.

“We have a fair system. I did research at college five years ago which suggested that French teams relatively underpaid black and Arab players compared to white French players, yet they were always searching for the ‘new Zidane’, so would pack youth teams with players from immigrant backgrounds. Ironic.

[FRENCH PUT KNYSNA DEMONS TO BED]

“And, just by looking at the Premier League, you can see the British system is not set up to develop local talent.

“I think French football has changed significantly since foreign owners came in, while English football knows its problems, but it shows how haphazard European football can be. We may not have the biggest and best teams but our system feeds well into our national team.

“And in the US football is a diverse sport that promotes equality. Our national team is ethnically mixed, and we welcomed Robbie Rogers back to the US with open arms after he came out as gay. I think some people in Europe could learn from that.”

I spoke to American journalist Andrew Jerrell Jones about how he saw this boom in the US market.

He feels that the increased popularity of football is down to the success of the national team, who have garnered worldwide respect with a never-say-die attitude as they continually punch above their weight.

The brilliant 2-2 draw between the USA and Portugal match got an ESPN rating of 9.1 - on a par with the NBA finals, beating the baseball World Series, and far outpunching ice hockey's Stanley Cup.

The stats haven't been fully crunched for USA v Germany, but the New York Times reported that 1.7 million Americans watched it on their iPhone app alone - meaning total figures could be beyond the 20m mark.

But Andrew feels that US soccer still has a long way to go before it establishes itself as the national sport.

"The casual, mainstream fan momentum for MLS by itself is just difficult to get. The league, still younger than the inclusion of the Premier League, just doesn't have the big star appeal and historical structure with fans yet, especially in the competitive big markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

"Despite fine growth in almost 20 years of existence, MLS' success throughout North America still hinges on how the national team performs and that's the unfortunate truth. Tremendous regional support from towns like the Northwest (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver), Salt Lake, and Kansas City now are still mired behind a general public apathy or languidness that basically don't want to see an average product hold their attention.

"The World Cup is football’s best, or still in our case soccer's best, and US casual fans know that they can get fully behind that. But unless the national team goes real far into the tournament like in 2002, it won't have the intense day to day coverage that it receives from ESPN or big sports media outlets when the tournament is over. And MLS could only wish they had prominent morning shows or extensive notable magazine previews dedicate any time to covering it in detail."

[THE RUSSIAN FANS OBSESSED WITH BRITISH HOOLIGANS]

Back to fan Ryan, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative. He had strong words about right-wing US political commentator Anne Coulter, who recently wrote an article dismissing soccer as a foreign, liberal distraction that Americans must hate.

“She’s an idiot. America has changed. We have gay marriage, which is an awesome development, and legalised marijuana. These are people who want to use the N-word and F-word and are clinging on to a past that will die with them.

“Some people hate change. Well I’ve got news for you – America is changing, and if you hate that, you hate America. And this World Cup is part of that.”

View gallery

.
Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in
Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Maher_LDN
View Comments (23)
Fantasy Premier League