In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup, and its citizens barely noticed. Today, soccer is a big deal everywhere. Finally.
Twenty years ago, the same day O.J. took off in the white Bronco, America waited not-all-that-breathlessly for the World Cup to begin, with the home team starting its campaign the next day against Switzerland in the Pontiac Silverdome.
The planet’s biggest sporting event was an odd fit in the United States, stretched across the country’s vast expanses, a curiosity for some—look at all those funny folks in strange getups, singing away—and a threat to others, who found the “foreign” game somehow menacing. The column inches that summer devoted to soccer-is-boring, soccer-is-too-low-scoring, soccer-will-never-win-over-Americans consumed reams of that now-antique medium, newsprint.
The first indoor game in World Cup history wouldn’t do much to change anyone’s mind, and even by the time the tournament ended with Brazil’s unsatisfying win over Italy on penalties at the Rose Bowl, it was hard to sense a cultural shift.
In those days, soccer fandom in the United States and Canada thrived mostly in Old World pockets. A distinctly North American product, in the form of the NASL, had already taken a crack at making converts with Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and Best before collapsing under its own weight in 1985—which certainly didn’t bode well for the austere, star-free MLS, born out of the ’94 tournament.
And as much as soccer haters seemed intent on repelling the invaders, there was another negative force at work: the sport’s own resident snobs, who, rather than welcoming and educating enthusiastic newbies, were more interested in excluding them from their secret society.
Betting on soccer’s ascendancy on this continent at that moment meant backing a long shot.
Yet here we are, and look at those television ratings.
The World Cup is on. The old-media scoffers have mostly retired or waved the white flag. There are still plenty of phonies pretending they grew up in the shadow of Old Trafford or the Bernabeu or the San Siro, speaking and writing in cartoon Europeanisms, trying desperately to make one of the simplest games around into something so vastly complex that only a select few can understand the subtleties of the 4-4-2 (the next time you read or hear the phrase “tactical nous,” run away as fast as you can), but they have failed at barring the door.
A generation back, an American or Canadian would be lucky to have the chance to see the FA Cup final on television. Now, every game from every league of significance is available live in some form, which has led directly to the emergence of a new, young, soccer-literate population unbound by old ties and old biases. Though it has had its struggles, and though it will always suffer in false comparisons to big-league football, baseball, basketball and hockey, MLS has found its niche—a local outlet for folks who are watching the EPL or La Liga or the Champions League and want to dress up and sing and enjoy the experience of being part of a soccer crowd. It doesn’t have to be the best. It doesn’t have to compete with foreign leagues or other domestic sports. It can’t, and it never will—and that’s just fine.
Americans also enjoy the bonus of cheering on a national team that draws big crowds any time it plays at home, one that has become a World Cup staple, that pushed as far as the quarterfinals in 2002, that has created its own stars and its own talking points. Think of how much discussion there was this spring in the mainstream U.S. sports media about Landon Donovan’s exclusion from the 2014 squad, and about Jurgen Klinsmann’s leadership. Twenty years ago, that conversation would have been unimaginable.
In Canada, we haven’t been so lucky. Our national men’s program remains shambolic, and for anyone old enough to remember our lone World Cup appearance in 1986, it’s hard to imagine there will be another in our lifetime. But if it happened, the country would go bonkers—hockey bonkers. This summer, even without that added incentive, you don’t have to go into a soccer pub or an ethnic social club to find someone willing to discuss Spain’s collapse, Costa Rica’s miracles or England being England. All of that is part of the larger sports chatter now—for some, every four years; for others, every day of the year.
And no one got hurt. The other sports are doing just fine, thanks. The barbarians who stormed the gates and expanded the soccer community beyond its self-imposed cliquishness brought sunshine and oxygen and energy and made it a whole lot more fun.
The debate’s over. Soccer happened.
Now just sit back and enjoy.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.