Copa paves the way for football to make inroads into the US soul

Eighty nine years ago ‘The Jazz Singer’ was in production, the Al Jolson vehicle that popularised ‘talkies’ – films with sound.

United States

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"Globally the effect was profound,” writes Bill Bryson in his wonderful ‘One Summer’ - an account of the many fascinating events that took place in the Unites States in the space of a few months in 1927. 

"Moviegoers around the world suddenly found themselves exposed, often for the first time, to American voices, American vocabulary, American cadence and pronunciation and word order…., not just occasionally but in film after film. 

"The psychological effect of this, particularly on the young, can hardly be overstated. With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humour and sensibilities. Peacefully, by accident and almost unnoticed, America had just taken over the world."

It may be the case that at the moment the world is finally getting its own back. Football, the global game, is making inroads into the US soul.
A tradition longer than that of the ‘talkies’ is that of the Copa America, first played exactly a hundred years ago. 

This South American competition – initially confined to the south cone – is the oldest continental tournament around, and a moment of huge importance in the development of the game. 

It helped popularise the game in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and led to a rapid improvement in standards. 

And a direct line can be drawn between the birth of the Copa in 1916 and that of the FIFA World Cup just 14 years later. 

In the middle of that line would be the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, when Uruguay turned up unheralded and wiped the floor with all comers on their way to the gold medal. Were they really better than the English professionals? 

A competition open to all comers, amateurs and professionals like, needed to be created so the growing football public could find out – and so the World Cup came into existence.

The USA took part in some of its first versions, famously beating England in 1950. But in general, the game passed the country by. 

Further south, the sons of Italian immigrants were football stars. In the USA, Joe DiMaggio, of Sicilian parents, became one of the great names of baseball, the mass sport of the day.

Now, somewhat strangely, the centenary of the Copa America is being celebrated in the USA. 

It is a moment to reflect that, while the ‘talkies’ were at the spearhead of the global penetration of US culture, sport is something of an exception. 

Baseball and American football have limited appeal. Basketball travels better – but in the early 1990s, a leading US sportswear manufacturer came to the conclusion that it was not going to be the global game. That honour belonged to football.

The USA staged the 1994 World Cup on the condition that it would set up its own domestic league. Now two decades old, the MLS is becoming an increasingly consolidated entity. 

The current Copa America – the Copa Centenario – is the biggest football event the country has staged since that World Cup. It is an interesting measure of the progress that football has made.
USA 94 was a success – with huge average crowds. But it was a gimmick. This one is different. Football is now part of the American way of life. 

It is a niche market, but some would argue that these days all sports with the exception of American football are niches. 

Basketball has a bigger niche, but the likes of baseball and boxing have slipped backwards. And with such a large and wealthy population, a niche in the US is big enough to have some traction.

So the question on the table at the moment is this - how much will this current tournament help to make that niche even bigger?

Some of the games in the Copa Centenario may have appeared to be sparsely attended, but this would be a harsh judgement. The stadiums that are being used are vast arenas, and the ticket prices are high. 

The average crowds have been better than expected though, but most of this has been down to the Latin population, coming out to support Mexico, Colombia and so on. 

Meanwhile, there has also been another big driver of ticket sales – the desire to see Lionel Messi in the flesh.

Many of those who have drawn to the game in the US are TV fans, tuning in to European club football. 

This, then, is an unprecedented chance to see the world’s best player in competitive action, striving to finally win a senior title with his national team.

And assuming Argentina get past Venezuela in the quarter-final, then their opponents in the semi-final will be the USA. 

Jurgen Klinsmann’s team lost the opening match to Colombia, which has added considerable excitement to all of their subsequent fixtures. 

The USA have been playing for their lives every few days. Of course, some people are being caught up in the drama – but there is considerable room for improvement.

At the time of writing I am in Boston for the Argentina – Venezuela match. It is the day after the USA’s nerve-racking quarter-final win over Ecuador, which took place in Seattle. 

Yesterday afternoon I felt very little of that build up, that tangible tension in the air that is evident when an important game is about to be played.  I only saw one person in a USA shirt – and this morning I have not seen too much evidence of celebrations. 

The stadium in Seattle did not even sell out – unlike the Colombia v Peru quarter-final in New York. It is very different from a normal Copa – for example, Chile last year, when the entire host country appears to be hanging on the fortunes of the national team.

But on Wednesday (AEST) in Houston it will surely be more animated. Just a single step away from the final, the stakes will be higher. 

And for local football fans there are now two big draw cards – the chance to see Lionel Messi in competitive action, against their own team. (Unless of course, Argentina are surprised by Venezuela, in which case there is another incentive for USA fans to watch their team as they will go into the semi-final as favourites).

Whatever happens, it promises to be a key occasion in the growth of US football, big enough to give the ghost of Al Jolson something to talk about.

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6 min read
Published 18 June 2016 at 12:39pm
By Tim Vickery