On June 11, the result of an athletic competition will send an entire country into a state of euphoria or a state of despair. No, we’re not talking about a potential Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, although a Chicago Blackhawks title – their first since 1961 – would be pretty big around these parts.
The athletic competition in question is soccer’s World Cup, and the event that kicks off Friday will be all over the airwaves, increasing in intensity until the month-long tournament – which is held every four years – comes to a close on July 11.
A handful of Monmouth College students, faculty members and alumni were recently asked their thoughts on the big event, and one of them, history professor Bill Urban, said the World Cup is able to accomplish something that another event held every four years can’t.
“International sports have become venues for newly emerged nations to present themselves to the world, to demonstrate that they have attained a rank once reserved to the white nations that invented the sports,” said Urban, who was Monmouth’s first men’s soccer coach in 1972. “The Olympics fails to accomplish this goal, there being so many events that none is particularly important; only hosting the event is noteworthy. The World Cup is the only sporting event that engages the entire world.”
The history department is also home to another former MC soccer coach, Simon Cordery, who was in his native England at the time of his interview.
“The World Cup is a global festival of madness and overly optimistic expectations,” he said. “As one commentator put it here, England does not underachieve, but the English fans over-expect. The flags of St. George are everywhere, and ‘three lions’ merchandise can be purchased in virtually any store, from stickers to knickers.”
When previewing the World Cup, England is a good place to start. The lone World Cup title in English history came when the nation hosted the 1966 event, and there are many – including the majority of those interviewed for this story – who believe England will reach the championship match.
“I feel that the English and the Germans will not play a legitimate opponent for the first four games (until the quarterfinal), at which point they will only have three games left to win,” said Josh Oakley, a 1998 Monmouth graduate now coaching men’s soccer at Alma College.
Oakley boldly predicted an English title, while two others – Cordery and sophomore soccer player Andy Sheller, see an England-Spain final, with Sheller predicting a title for “La Furia Roja.”
Five players to watch are Lionel Messi of Argentina, Wayne Rooney of England, Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Kaka of Brazil and Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast. Drogba will be especially interesting, as the Chelsea superstar is attempting a rapid return from a broken arm. If he can regain his form, he would add legitimacy to claims that Ivory Coast can be a dark horse team.
Current MC men’s coach George Perry, who admitted to not being a great soccer prognosticator, called for a final between traditional powers Brazil and Argentina. Of the World Cup in general, he noted, “National pride reigns supreme. All club rivalries come to a standstill to support your country. The passion and emotions stemming from the World Cup are second to none.”
While Perry might not know the future, there are three soccer-related areas where he can claim expert status. One is in relation to youth soccer, as he has played an active role in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) and various Olympic Development Programs. In fact, he wrote a chapter on youth soccer for the NSCAA’s “The Soccer Coaching Bible.” On a related note, he knows a lot about the growth of the sport in the U.S., and he provided the following information:
“Soccer is the largest participation youth sport in the U.S. Our men’s professional league (MLS) is in the top six or seven of league attendance in the world.”
Finally, Perry has unique insight into perhaps the biggest moment in U.S. soccer history – a 1-0 victory by the national team over England in the 1950 World Cup. Sixty years to the month, the U.S. team will have a chance for a similar “shock the world” upset when it plays England in its opening match on June 12.
“There are three surviving members of that team,” said Perry of the 1950 squad. “Harry Keough was the long-time soccer coach at St. Louis University. I played and coached against his teams when I was at Indiana. Walter Bahr – whose sons played soccer and football for Penn State and were both kickers in the NFL – was the soccer coach at Penn State, and I coached against him when I was at St. Bonaventure.”
The MC soccer contingent isn’t holding its breath when it comes to another U.S. victory over England, but Perry does predict that the Yanks will place second in their four-team group, allowing them to move on to the round of 16.
“I think they’ll beat Germany and then lose to Argentina in the quarterfinals,” he added.
A top eight finish would be a repeat of the result for the U.S. in 2002.
“Soccer in the states has obviously grown, but I still think that the mainstream sports media – of which 80 percent or so do not know the world game – expect too much of our national side,” said Oakley. “In 2006, the U.S. media hyped our boys to the max, failing to realize the toughness of our group.”
As for their chances this year?
“Sadly, I feel that this summer’s U.S. team will not make it out of group play and the American media will bash us,” said Oakley. “I think the U.S. is going to struggle to score goals, and our back line is downright frightening. Landon Donavon and Tim Howard are world-class players, but there are simply too many holes in our team.”
Urban believes soccer is making progress in the U.S., but it’s still fighting an uphill battle.
“Soccer in the U.S. has emerged from a minor sport to a semi-major one which attracts many players but few fans,” he said. “It is unlikely to attract a wide audience in America because the rules reduce too many games to a mistake or a referee’s whim.”
Urban said no change in the rules is likely because the coaches of weaker teams like having the stronger teams limited in imagination and aggressiveness.
“So we will muddle on, overtime game after overtime game, while fans who have never experienced the joy of competing on a wide field, free from the instructions of coaches and the fear of being replaced every two or three minutes, will simply change the channel.”
“Soccer is always the fourth major sport behind football, baseball and basketball,” said Cordery. “It’s always the choice of kids, always on the verge of a breakthrough. Remember 1950? Remember the NASL? Remember David Beckham? It’s still on the verge of making that big breakthrough.”
It wasn’t too long ago that Sheller was one of those kids who chose soccer, and he says the game is flourishing at the youth level.
“I have personally witnessed the growth of soccer in the United States on a large national scale to a small local scale,” he said. “My hometown, Morton, has a great soccer complex that boasts seven or eight fields that were not there about a decade ago. I also grew up playing club soccer and had the opportunity to travel all over the country as more and more tournaments became available as the sport grew.”
To watch the World Cup in person, one doesn’t have to travel all over – simply head to South Africa, which is drawing considerable attention as the host.
“For South Africans, this is either the moment the country bursts onto the world sporting scene positively or the whole thing is a huge waste of money,” said Cordery. “There is a lot of controversy in Johannesburg because some 140,000 people were displaced from their homes to make way for stadium construction, but a third of them have yet to be re-housed. Certainly, to meet FIFA standards, the transportation and tourism infrastructure has been improved, but the ticket sales are slow for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fear of crime.”
Said Sheller, “The World Cup being in South Africa reemphasizes the fact that futbol is the world’s game and is meant to be played everywhere. Any country has a chance to host it, and it is not just meant to be hosted by rich, wealthy countries.”
Any country can win it, too, but during the past four years, the worldwide pool has been trimmed to 32 teams. Play starts at 9 a.m. Central time on June 11 with South Africa and Mexico kicking off the action.