I never much liked Heineken, but I love their soccer commercials. Have you see them? They end with “You can call me soccer.”
Like probably all of you, I grew up playing soccer. Unlike probably many of you, it was during an era when, relative to today, not a whole lot of it was played, virtually none was watched, and all of it was criticized. National teams were virtually non-existent and youth national teams were rare.
Media coverage? You’re kidding, right? To get soccer news, you subscribed to Soccer America and read the newspapers from large metropolitan areas. Finding soccer info in those papers, if there was any, was easy. Step 1, pull out the sports section. Step 2, flip the section over so the back page is facing up. Step 3, look at the back pages for the catchall notes section where editors slap in short pieces to fill out the page. Step 4, Get disgusted when the one piece of soccer news chosen for that day is about hooligans. Step 5, try another paper.
When the old NASL came along, things improved tremendously. Games were on TV. I could watch megastars like Beckenbauer, Pele, Cruyff, Cubillas, Carlos Alberto. Living in New York State on Lake Ontario, we could even drive 90 miles to Rochester to see them in person, and I could get a show on Canadian television called “Soccer Made in Germany”, which showed highlights of Bundesliga games on Sundays. Sadly, all of that only served to make soccer critics more vocal.
It’s a game for foreigners, they said, not real Americans. Real Americans played baseball and football. In fact, real men played football. Soccer was for sissies, which is a nice word replacement for what we were actually called. I would cringe when during a World Cup or NASL game, players celebrated goals with kisses on the cheek. Journalists thought it was their duty to tell us why the people who watched it, played it and fans of it had something wrong with them, and they were most likely anti-American.
Later, when I started covering the sport, I found I was sentenced to sit in press boxes with some of the same people. One-hundred percent of the time, I would hear a sentence that started with, “You know what this game needs?” Then I would hear idiotic proposals ranging from penalty boxes like in hockey, to fewer players on the field, to goals that extended the entire length of the end line, and selected players on each team able to use their hands. When they were done talking, I would say, “That’s a great idea, what are you going to call this new game you invented?”
So you can probably understand why the versions of the commercials that hit home most for me are Landon Donovan’s and Carli Lloyd’s. Donovan’s goes like this: “They said I wasn’t born in the right country. What I had to offer, America wouldn’t buy. But I earned their respect. My name? You can call me soccer.” And Carli Lloyd’s: “You have to prove yourself to make it in America. It doesn’t matter where you came from. I heard I’d never make it. I proved them wrong.” My name? You can call me soccer.”
Has soccer in the United States “made it?” I think it’s close. There is a lot to be excited about. Fan support for men’s and women’s national team games is encouraging and growing. Professional men’s leagues seem to be on sound footing, even though the structure of three leagues (MLS, NASL and USL Pro) fighting for status will have to change soon. And the NWSL, the women’s professional league, has lasted longer already than any of its predecessors.
The two areas in which soccer in this country has grown the most, in my opinion, are optimism and expectations. But it’s taken a really long time to get to this point, and I think we just need to enjoy and support what we have. If you consider that the mission statement for the United States Soccer Federation is to “make soccer a pre-eminent sport in the United States,” and the mission statement has not changed in 113 years, you get a sense of where we came from and where we are.
And while we are talking about where we came from, thank you Heineken for using the word soccer. After you have been belittled, dismissed and looked down upon by people who are sure they understand the game better than you because they were born someplace else, someplace where they play ‘football,” you’ll understand why. After you spend more than 40 years defending the American game to people who believe there is no way you can understand what they are talking about, you’ll get it. But most importantly, you will fully understand why the word is important when Americans, rabid fans of the game, insist on using terms like football, pitch, and nil, hoping others will think they are experts, or simply as a way to show they are sophisticated fans of the game and not silly American novices. Perhaps, more innocently, they use the accepted jargon just as a way to honor the game.
Me, I grew up in the United States, playing soccer not football. I played games not matches on fields not pitches. I only wore boots in the winter, and I played in cleats. Scoreless games were zero-zero, or better yet, nuttin-nuttin. I‘m not trying to change any traditions or challenge the sacred European or South American view of the game. They can call it anything they want. For me, I’ll be glad to call it soccer.