Most kids in high school know one thing: the good looking girls like the popular guys, and if you’re on the football team—yes, American football—then you’re doing okay with the ladies. Meanwhile, the rest of us turn to unhealthy habits, The Catcher in the Rye, and hanging out in poorly lit parking lots.
Over the years, however, the sport of soccer—yes, European/South American/African/Asian football—has been making inroads with the American public. But it feels like it is taking forever. Seriously. Just when it appears the American public is finally going to fall in love with soccer, something weird happens. The public gets cold feet. The public backs away. It refuses to commit, and runs back to the stable, familiar, good-looking NFL and its bazillions of dollars and father who is a rich doctor and drives a Lexus. Poor soccer is left at home, brooding on the couch, devouring ice cream with its bare hands.
The American public loves a winner, and soccer hasn’t been able to throw itself that raucous champagne-drenched party for champions that the good-looking girls need in order to be popular.
Men’s soccer hasn’t really even come close, but it has achieved a level of respectability both here and abroad. And, just this week, the U.S. Men’s National Team qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil by beating nemesis Mexico. One can feel the American public growing excited about soccer again, the World Cup in particular, though with that same sense of trepidation. The jury of public opinion is still out on soccer.
Americans are tired of being told they’re too dumb to understand a sport that the rest of the world considers a form of religion. The American public is simply different. For instance, the American public cringes every time a soccer player takes a dive. It’s shameful. It’s insulting. Oh, and it’s lying, which the public knows is a synonym for cheating. In American football a player will hide being injured because they’re tough, committed to their teammates, and have enough self-respect not to fall down like a game of Jenga when brushed by an opponent’s arm hair.
Soccer fans across the globe explain taking dives as part of the “pageantry” of soccer, which is like saying government corruption is a cultural tradition that should be protected. No one who has an NFL fantasy football team is buying that nonsense. Many blame American’s slow acceptance of soccer on low-scoring games and the inaccessibility of the subtle, nuanced play that informs soccer. Again, never call the public idiots. Soccer’s greatest PR challenge is the horrendous, inexcusable, and ridiculous practice of diving.
The beauty of sports is that they present us with opportunities to teach our kids critical lessons about life, from the importance of teamwork and self-discipline to being responsible for our actions and learning how to win, and lose, with honor. Watching your favorite soccer player take a dive and cry about it like a victim of some horrible crime is the antithesis of all of those values. Are other sports perfect? Of course not. Lance Armstrong doped up. Aaron Hernandez is a drug-dealing murderer. A-Rod is a crass, arrogant cheater. But diving in soccer is infuriating because it’s an accepted part of the game. Diving is everything we teach our kids not to do.
All you need to play soccer is a soccer ball. To play high school American football you need expensive equipment, teammates the size of small cars, and religious parents who pray you won’t get a concussion every time you don a helmet. Soccer should be becoming more popular. And it is. But from a public relations perspective, we’ll be watching closely to see if the American public changes the sport of soccer, or if soccer changes the perspective of the American public. Either way, this is going to be fun.