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The “Other” Football

The “Other” Football

Americans don’t care about soccer.

Critics of the “beautiful game” will continue to denounce the rest of the world’s favorite sport as “boring”, mostly attributed to a “lack of scoring”, because how can a game that regularly ends in a score of 0-0 be exciting? Despite the criticism, sports media has been reporting for many years that soccer is “poised” to be the next big thing in the US, “on the verge” of gaining a strong foothold in our society.

Too late. It’s already here.

Reflecting the support soccer now gets here, Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium has been selected as a host of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, one of the most prestigious events in international football and a Western-hemisphere pre-cursor to the World Cup. The stadium will host a double-header in the Group Stage; one of those teams will be the United States in Group B.

David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, said in a press release yesterday, “This opportunity affords Northeast Ohio the ability to play a role in an event that draws tens of thousands of spectators. Due to the invaluable partnerships with the City of Cleveland, Cleveland Browns and Columbus Crew, we will be able to show the world Cleveland’s passion for soccer.”

It certainly took a while for Cleveland and the rest of the US to catch on, though. American sports fandom has been long-dominated by the sports it created – baseball, football and basketball. Baseball, “America’s passtime” was the most popular form of entertainment as early as the 1860s. The first “American football” game, derived from rugby, was played in New Jersey in 1869. A Canadian invented basketball in 1891 while working at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA in 1891. Though soccer arrived in the US as early as the 1850s, brought here by immigrants mostly from northern Europe, its focus was primarily regional, lacking some of the nationwide cohesiveness and promotion that brought the other big three sports to power. The Great Depression saw many soccer teams fail and the sport itself dropped off while baseball stars like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig became national stars, increasing baseball’s popularity throughout the first half of the 20th century. Universities were the first teams to popularize football, leading to the creation of the American Professional Football Association in Canton, Ohio in 1920, the pre-cursor to today’s NFL. Universities were also responsible for popularizing basketball, but it’s most significant promotion came from the U.S. Army during World War I when American soldiers using it as a passtime introduced the game to each other and allied soldiers in other parts of the world. As the US itself became more American-centric throughout the mid-20th century, the sports of immigrants like cricket and soccer slowly fell into obscurity.

Soccer would not begin to recover from the lack of support until the late 1960s and would struggle to support nationwide leagues; most of them failed miserably. The introduction of popular foreign players to US soccer, like Pele and Franz Breckenbauer playing in New York in the 70s and 80s and the rise of Latin American immigration to the US, gradually increased the sport’s popularity. A movement in youth sports also created more awareness and a larger following; kids who couldn’t hit a bat and ball very well or were too small to play football or basketball were drawn to soccer as a cheaper, easier alternative. This gradual expansion of interest led to the establishment of Major League Soccer, the MLS, in 1993 and America’s first and only hosting of the World Cup in 1994. Kids who grew up playing the game in youth sports have become the adult fans filling seats at MLS games today.

The devil is in the details; 26.5 million viewers watched the last World Cup final between Germany and Argentina. As the USMNT’s competitiveness on the world stage rapidly increases, so does the support. An ESPN poll in 2014 showed 18% of American children 12-17-years-old watch MLS, the same percentage that are watching baseball. American players like Brad Friedel, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan have become household names. Thanks to the internet and cable channels that show international leagues, players like Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and Leo Messi have also become household names in the US. Seeing an American kid in a Messi jersey isn’t uncommon; nearly every office in the United States has that one guy who will wear his Arsenal jersey on casual Fridays.

Cleveland has its own rich history with the “other” football. The Cleveland Soccer Football Club began in the early 1900s; the first game of record occurred between St. Ignatius High School and Central High School in 1907. The majority of Cleveland’s first teams were backed by religious, fraternal, ethnic and business organizations. Soccer declined here as it did in the rest of the country during the first half of the 20th century but began experiencing a recovery in the 1970’s with the Lake Erie Soccer League being formed and a number of ethnic-oriented teams being created, like the Inter-Italians of Cleveland, Danube Swaben (German) and the Croatian Americans. Other teams were created by cities, like Garfield United, Canton Stars and Euclid Internationals. Soccer was re-introduced in Cleveland schools during the 60s after having been dropped from the curriculum in the early 30s. The Cleveland Force is our city’s most well-recognized team, in existence from 1978 through 1988 as part of the nationwide Major Indoor Soccer League and enjoyed great success at their home in Richfield Coliseum, pulling in nearly 13,000 fans per game in their best years, reaching the Championship Series seven times and creating stars of players like Hector Marinaro and Kai Haaskivi. Poor management led to the folding of the team, which was re-started after a one-year hiatus as the Cleveland Crunch. The Crunch won the MISL title three times in its history but never created the stars or the fan following of the Force and folded in 2005.

Recently, as soccer fanaticism grew all over the US, it also returned to Cleveland. The American Outlaws, a nationwide organized fan base of US soccer fans whose motto is “Unite and Strengthen”, has local chapters in Cleveland and Akron that host tailgate and watch parties, offer merchandise and keep fans up-to-date on the men’s and women’s national teams through their website. Nearly 30,000 fans from Northeast Ohio attended the US vs. Belgium World Cup friendly hosted at Cleveland Stadium in 2013, many in their red, white and blue in support of the national team, but many others in jerseys from teams as far away from Cleveland as Manchester, England and Ajax in Amsterdam. Local pubs that cater to soccer fans like the Old Angle in Ohio City and Merry Arts in Lakewood are packed to capacity with fans during World Cup games and other popular international tournaments.

Since 2012, Cleveland has had its most recent inception of a professional soccer team in the city, the AFC Cleveland Royals, part of the Mid-West region of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). The team has its own loyal group of “hooligans”, the 6th City Syndicate, complete with drums, flags and chants at every game and offers team merchandise to fans, including team scarves similar to the international style of gear most often seen worn by European football fans. The team regularly hosts youth-participation events throughout the city. Royals players are primarily recruited from Ohio universities like Mount Union, Case and Cleveland State. Most of them are Ohio natives. Fan favorite Vinny Bell has been with the team since its inception and has often led the team in goals and assists throughout the last four seasons. He is a graduate of CWRU and was a wide receiver for their football team as well as being a standout soccer player. The Royals have seen the resurgence in soccer popularity for themselves. Attendance at home games for the team has been on a steady increase in its 4-year history, from approximately 600 fans per game in its first year to today’s totals reaching 1,500.

Sergio Manesio is a Cleveland State University student who plays the middle and center forward position for the Cleveland Royals as well as the CSU soccer team and says he has seen an increase in the sport’s popularity in Cleveland. “I’ve definitely seen a more general interest. People are more curious to find out about soccer and they definitely are more willing to ask more questions to find out more about the game and how it functions. I think people are starting to realize that it’s a fun sport not just to play but also to watch. Definitely wearing a jersey like West Brom helps ‘cause it catches their eye. Or they see me wearing my CSU soccer gear and they would be like, ‘Do you play soccer?’ They usually ask me what team I support and what position I play. And then they just kind of speak to me about their knowledge of the game and what they know about it and then we’ll start a conversation about soccer.”

But it’s boring, just a bunch of guys running around on a field for an hour and a half. And there’s no score. How do you possibly enjoy a game that ends in a 0-0 draw? Even sitting through a 1-0 game is like watching paint dry. What gives?

Fans call it the “beautiful game” because it’s like a dance, the artistry of the performance is in the intricacy of the moves and those who have never played or don’t understand those intricacies are going to miss them and ultimately be bored to death. Backheel passes, a perfectly bent corner-kick, overhead kicks, poor tackles that result in fouls and yellow cards are all very subtle and will be missed by the uninitiated. And unlike the sports that dominate America, the game itself isn’t as much determined in the score itself as it is in creating the opportunity to score, which is why a 0-0 game, or a tie at 2-2 draws few complaints. The more opportunity to score is created, the more chances a score will eventually happen. And when it does, fans rightfully go nuts.

Despite the presence of America’s Big Three sports in our town by way of our beloved Browns, Indians and Cavaliers, soccer fandom is here on the lake shore and here to stay. Cleveland’s rich history with the sport from its very beginnings, brought here by immigrants from the British Isles over a century ago, has swelled alongside the rest of the US to become an established part of our culture. So next time you see that guy in your office in his Arsenal jersey, congratulate him on his team winning the FA Cup and ask him to send you a YouTube link of some of the greatest bicycle kicks in soccer history and discover what the rest of us are so excited about. Just don’t call him a “Gooner”, that means something bad, but you’ll figure that out as you go.

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