If the U.S. won the World Cup

An apocalyptic scenario involving Howard Cosell.

Published June 27, 2002 7:35PM (EDT)

Now that we know for sure that the U.S. soccer team isn't going to win the World Cup this time, we can sit back and reflect on what's happened and what might happen in future cup competitions. We went 2-2-1, I think, an enormous turnaround from the 1-2-1 -- or was it 1-2-2? -- in 1998. Next time around, I think we're fully capable of going 3-2 or 2-1-2 or maybe even a perfect 0-0-5. And, to tell you the truth, I'm not all that concerned about whether we win the World Cup or not, but I sure would like to get another chance to redeem our national pride by kicking the crap out of Poland.

But what if we do win it all, or even tie it all? (What if every game is a 1-1 or 0-0 tie and nobody can score a penalty kick? Do we have co-World Cup champions the way we occasional have co-national championships in American college football?)

Would such an event greatly affect soccer in the United States? Would it lead to the establishment of hugely popular professional soccer leagues?

First question first: Yes, probably, to a degree. Americans are such suckers when it comes to something with a European label that many who have resisted thus far would give in to trendiness and push their kids into youth soccer programs. But American kids have been playing soccer for more than two decades without showing the slightest interest in the sport after they reach college age, so it's doubtful that a fundamental change in our national attitude toward the game is going to come from the youth. (It isn't that soccer loses its kids to other sports when they grow up so much as that in post-Cold War America, all team sports lose kids, or at least white kids, period.)

As far as women's sports go, I don't know how soccer could be any more all-conquering. Our women's soccer team had all the world's attention and no major rivals (really, not even basketball) for the women's professional sports dollar. Yet, average attendance per game, about 7,300, is down nearly 800 from when the league was first established several years ago. Now, who are we going to blame this on? However reactionary and obstructionist men are, it would be unreasonable to expect them to suddenly desert baseball, football, basketball and hockey in droves for women's soccer; would it be unfair to ask why more women haven't attended those soccer games? Shall we say perhaps twice as many as 7,300? If it isn't fair to ask that question, then let's try this one: Who exactly are we saying should be attending women's soccer matches?

That advocates of organized soccer are confusing success and popularity with big-time television money isn't unusual. Nearly every American sportswriter and TV commentator does the same thing. For instance, have you ever thought about how perfectly soccer and American football contrast with each other in terms of participation and TV popularity? In America, more people play soccer than any other sport. Do you know anyone who plays organized football on any level? I'm sure some of you do, but I'd be willing to bet most of you do not. In my generation, perhaps a third of all males of my acquaintance played peewee or Pop Warner or high school or college football; now, one generation later, when either side of the family gets together, there isn't a single football player in the entire bunch.

The truth is, football as a participatory sport in this country is dying, and dying, or at least shrinking, fast. Throughout the South, once the country's hotbed of high school and college football, high school programs are dropping football left and right due to cost, the threat of lawsuits, or just plain lack of interest from the student body. As a Sports Illustrated story earlier this year pointed out, the South Carolina high school that inspired "Remember the Titans" has scarcely been able to field a team for years. And yet the National Football league is the most financially vigorous of all sports leagues and the Super Bowl is far and away the country's most popular sports TV broadcast. What we do and what we watch are two remarkably different things.

What really intrigues me, though, is the likelihood of what would happen if by some incredible confluence of events America did manage to win the World Cup. What if the wet dream of American soccer monkeys actually did occur? What if the United States became the world's major soccer power? After watching the euphoria of South Korean soccer fans and the abject misery of the Mexicans after their matches with the U.S. team, can you imagine how hated we would be if we trounced them on a regular basis? And given the money, technology and manpower available to the American sports empire, why shouldn't we be able to do it if we really wanted to? How hard could it be to put together a team to dominate Slovenia or even England? Argentina and Germany might be tougher nuts to crack, but if we can beat them in just about everything else, eventually, why not soccer? Then everybody can hate us as much as the poorer, undeveloped countries do.

With good reason, too, because you know what would happen within a short time of American dominance asserting itself, don't you? First of all, the game itself would simply have to change. Not just the rules, but the style of play. And before long, the aggressive high scoring that emerged would of course be refered to - derisively -- as the "American game." Old-fart European purists would put it down like old-time football coaches put down the excessive use of the T formation and the forward pass in American football. Sooner or later, American coaches would lobby for, and get, more liberal substitution rules so that "specialists" could be inserted in particular situations, to make even greater use of American manpower and resources. Once science went to work on the question of soccer, the players would, within 10 years, get bigger by 20-30 pounds and some spectacular collisions and a rash of far more serious injuries would result. In fact, injuries would be so frequent that they would solve the problem of the TV people, namely, when to insert commercials. Every time a man went down, some beer or shoe or car company would make the soccer folk a couple million dollars richer.

Tom Cruise would show up in the broadcasting booth. American jargon would begin to permeate the sport. As the money poured in, soccer players would get a union -- a real union, not like the company wimps that now represent basketball and football -- and you'd have work stoppages, not the wussy, half-hearted kind we now have in American sports, but really foul international incidents that would involve most of the world's intelligence agencies.

Cheerleaders would become a staple of every big soccer match around the world with an enormous cash-cow boost from a Playboy tie-in. Most of all, the talent drain would be directly reversed. What has happened in hockey in miniature would happen in soccer on a major scale. The vast majority of the world's great players would be sucked into the U.S. as surely as Wayne Gretzky was sucked from Edmonton to Los Angeles. There's one more thing, and I urge you to consider this carefully before you respond: Sooner or later, American soccer will produce the equivalent of Howard Cosell, and this time his influence will be worldwide.

All this can be ours only if we give up all we have in traditional American sports and dedicate ourselves with single-mindedness to soccer. Just ask yourself first if this is what you really want, because history suggests that once we start down such a road, there's no going back.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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