First, a quick terminology lesson: Football is a sport played all over the world, though in the USA, the game is quite different. I don’t like it when people use the derogatory term ‘handegg’ to talk about my beloved NFL football, so i’m not going to degrade English, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian, Russian etc. football by calling it ‘soccer’. Soccer is the term used to describe the game known internationally as football when it is played in America. For instance, last night, the USA beat Guatemala in a World Cup qualifying soccer match. It is called as such because it took place in Kansas City, KS, where the MLS team (stands for Major League Soccer) Sporting KC plays; it is a soccer match. This is in contrast to England, whose World Cup qualifying football match against Poland was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch in a roofed stadium.
Football, of all varieties, is a funny thing. While the game may not be the same, you can mention football in any country, and it’s more than likely a citizen’s favorite sport. You know how football is here in America: It is religion; it is a reason to wake up excited on Sunday morning; a reason to go to the bar with your buddies; it gets you though Monday. Go to England, you’ll find the same thing. English football happens on the weekends, with the occasional midweek match. There is Monday Night Football there, too (it is broadcast most weeks in the US on ESPN2 at 3PM ET, 8PM local).
People get up early and get drunk for football in Europe. They wear their jersey on gameday, even if they aren’t going to the game. The team plays once a week, and the majority of the excitement revolves around waiting and anticipating the weekly event. Talking heads pop up on TV talking about players and coaches and strategy and all that, and then they watch for 2 hours and its over. No matter where it is, football is football. Except when it’s soccer.
Soccer is what the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) plays in the USA. They do not use the word ‘soccer’ in the name, because in international competition, “National Team” assumes ‘football/soccer’. You do not see much major international basketball, baseball or hockey competition, outside of a single major tournament (Olympics/World Baseball Classic, though it’s hard to call the WBC major). International football is played very regularly, and the teams are as highly scrutinized as the clubs their players get paid by. This is football on another level: You have your favorite team, your local team, but then you root root root for your country.
All of that background (and there is a lot) aside, the point here is that the USMNT and the English National Team (they play football) are two very similar sides. You may have a lot of trouble believing that the country with the most interest in football has anything in common with the country least interested in soccer. However, the teams are far too close in nature to ignore:
1. The teams are full of promise. Both teams have a solid balance of stars, veterans and young players. Our Clint Dempsey is their Wayne Rooney, our Landon Donovan is their Frank Lampard, and our Terrence Boyd is their Danny Welbeck. The makeup of the team’s are very similar.
2. They get nowhere fast. Both teams are among the top programs in international play, yet neither team has much to show for it. The most recent match between the two, a 1-1 draw in the opening match of the 2010 World Cup, shows everything you need to know about these two teams: The US does not do anything vs. a decent England team, and England manages to beat itself. England have a notorious history of blowing it in penalty shootouts, and the USA participated in what was the worst loss in a big spot that I have ever seen (go to 4:15 to see the moment) to get eliminated from Olympic play this past year. Needless to say, they are two terrible teams on a big stage.
3. They get killed regularly by fans and media. They do it in different ways, but they are oh so similar. The US media could care less about any soccer, even on its highest level of international competition. The only time the USMNT gets any play is directly after a big match. A big win signals all the talk about how soccer in America is on its way up and everyone should be excited. But, as I explained in point 2, these wins are always followed by a bigger loss to eliminate the USA from competition. The media then takes about five minutes to remind us all that ‘soccer isnt our sport, and it never will be’. I cannot imagine the feeling Clint Dempsey gets when he hears that his amazing efforts are not valued by the nation.
In England, football commentary and analysis is about as dreadful as it gets. Everyone expects the worst, but they act like they expect the best, and just end up complain about everything no matter what. Like the USMNT, a big England win is almost always followed by a crushing defeat, and talking heads and fans are left to question what went wrong. England players face about as much pressure as any other high profile athlete; think Alex Rodriguez or Peyton Manning, but a team full of them. The TV shows and newspapers have fodder for months, because the team only plays once every few months, so the cycle is vicious and constant.
Today? Well, England doesn’t play until later today, but neither team is facing elimination from the World Cup just yet. That doesn’t mean they will not face tragedy yet again before the Brazil 2014 final. But if they do, they should know that their former brothers across the pond are right there in solidarity, whether they play soccer or football.
UPDATE: England drew Poland 1-1 on a first half Wayne Rooney goal and looking very unimpressive. It is tough to believe that England has a legitimate chance to compete in European or international tournaments, which may be an even bleaker outlook than the weak future of USA soccer.