Perception is a funny thing. As an Englishman moving to the United States of America, it was self-evident that I knew a certain sport more than pretty much everyone else within a three thousand mile radius. Americans don't like soccer. It's one of the things we learn about the country. Instead of "proper" sports, our friends from across the pond have their own football, a bastardization of cricket and take netball far too seriously.
In The Greatest Game, part of SB Nation's longform series, John Carlin wrote at length about the merits of soccer. Which is fair enough -- I don't think the sport needs evangelising, but far be it from me to complain when someone offers up a passionate (albeit slightly over the top) defence of the game. But then came that old cliche. Americans, you see, don't like soccer, and they're missing out on greats like Lionel Messi as a result.
I mean, it's not actually incorrect, as such. Americans don't care about soccer. But frankly, Americans don't care about baseball, either. Or basketball, or MMA, or NASCAR or ice hockey. That the majority of a country of three hundred and something million doesn't take soccer particularly seriously is both obvious fact and completely irrelevant.
It's a sport. Some people like it, and some don't. That's to be expected. I'm a big fan of baseball and ice hockey (plus soccer, of course), but I could live without basketball and American football. It's simply a matter of taste, and anyone claiming that there's sort of grand psychological structure behind my personal likes and dislikes would be conjuring patterns out of sheer randomness.
In America, most people don't care about soccer. But, fueled at least partially by changing demographics, there is an ever-growing group which does care, quite a lot. Sure, it's a reasonably small one, which is why it's possible to get away with the (still true, technically) 'doesn't care' canard. But while most Americans are indifferent to the sport, plenty live and breathe it.
I could cite the 66,452 crowd that turned up to see the Seattle Sounders host the Portland Timbers in a regular season MLS match on Oct. 7 as an example. Or the increasing popularity of overseas leagues, particularly England's Premier League, which has led to NBC making a big play for exclusive broadcast rights. But frankly, I think that talking about numbers is a fool's game. The fact of the matter is that while soccer might not be a "major sport," it still possesses, even in the United States, a hugely dedicated, intelligent following that no longer needs to defend itself by talking about numbers and growth.
It's a culture that the world barely knows exists. Within my first week of joining SB Nation Soccer, having been recruited by my predecessor mostly for my ability to write quite fast while watching Premier League matches, I was introduced to it when a colleague informed me of a brutal truth: "You'd be pretty good at this job if you paid attention to more than one and a half leagues."
And so began a crash course in soccer around the world. Argentinian soccer? Check. Turkish Super Lig? Yep. FMF? Sure. Copa Libertadores turned out to be brilliant (although I quickly learned that Cerro Porteño matches should be avoided at all costs). Pay enough attention to the Bundesliga and you'll find that it might well be the best league on the planet.
Soccer fans in the United States are in the unique position of being able to watch European soccer in the morning before transitioning to MLS, FMF, AFA, the Brasileirao, Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores in the afternoon. Coming from a world in which even La Liga and Serie A were foreign and therefore not worth watching ... well, it's fairly safe to say that transition was jarring.
It was, at any rate, pretty obvious that I wasn't working with "American soccer fans" (read that with the poshest Oxbridge accent, dripping with condescension and entirely misplaced arrogance). I was working with people who loved the sport and knew a lot more about it that I did. Still do, if I'm being honest.
There are fanatics around the world, of course. But the phenomenon of completely immersing one's self with the sport on a global scale seems to be disproportionately concentrated in the United States. While there are certainly local-only fans in the country -- and I certainly don't mean to denigrate their obvious passion and love for the game -- more often than not, when you meet an American soccer fan, you'll be talking someone familiar with, well, soccer. Talk to one in England, and their knowledge probably stops at the Channel.
America doesn't care about soccer. It certainly doesn't love it. And yet, there exist quite a lot of Americans who are, for want of a better term, absolutely addicted to it in all of its guises. The story isn't about the sport's popularity in the country. It's not even about its growth. Focusing on those means attachment to the by-now obsolete notion that the United States doesn't have a thriving soccer culture of its own.
That culture, at its heart, is centered on enjoying the game on its own merits. It's about ridiculous free kicks from Fredy Montero. It's about Lionel Messi's dazzling runs, or İlkay Gündoğan producing a scoring chance out of nothing with a raking diagonal directed at Robert Lewandowski's head. It's about rise and fall of great powers in Europe and South America. It's about laughing at Nemanja Vidic when he scores a scorpion kick own goal, or Gokhan Inler turning up at a press conference wearing a lion mask. Or Zlatan Ibrahimovic when he deigns to do, well, anything.
Why would it need to be about life, the universe and everything? There are no Homeric connotations here unless one tries really hard to invent them. Lessons in injustice? Sure, but the Green Bay Packers would like a word about soccer claiming preeminence there, as would everyone who's ever attempted to chart an umpire's strike zone.
Soccer doesn't have some greater meaning that's passed America by. It doesn't explain the human condition. It's a sport, and like all sports, it has compelling actors and fascinating stories. It doesn't have to be anything more than that to be beloved around the world.