Finally, it is time for Americans to care about soccer again as the FIFA World Cup kicks off this weekend.
The United States starts its run to the cup with a Saturday match against perpetual powerhouse England. Every four years, soccer enthusiasts hope that a strong showing by the U.S. team will continue to chip away at national apathy toward their beloved sport.
World Cup success on the women's side has planted standout stars such as Mia Hamm in the limelight, and kids of both genders flock to the sport and fill soccer complexes throughout the year, but sustaining that interest for televised, non-World Cup matches remains elusive.
Russell Lissuzzo, president of the Edmond Soccer Club, thinks the major obstacle is that it takes familiarity to appreciate a sport that can have matches that last 90 minutes, but end without a single goal to show for it.
"I grew up in Chicago, and I never knew about soccer, but when I moved here to have kids, soccer was the big thing," Lissuzzo said. "You don't see high-scoring games, but there is a lot of action, and once you understand the game, it is more fun to watch, because you understand the skill involved with moving the ball with your feet and putting it on net."
National pride will draw viewers this summer, according to Matt Fansher. The director of coaching education and player development for the Oklahoma Soccer Association said that the World Cup traditionally spikes interest in the sport, especially if the U.S. team does well.
He added that soccer has gotten another boost from an unexpected place: video games. Long the nemesis of athletics, they're playing a significant role in soccer's growing popularity, not just on the field, but on television.
"More Major League Soccer games are being put on TV, and kids are learning the players' names by playing the video games," Fansher said. "So when they see that player on TV, it is easier to follow, and watching the sport is really changing how young players are playing the game."
Michael Queri, owner of Mike's Soccer Kingdom retail store, located inside Indoor Soccer Arena, 100 N. McCormick, hopes for a boost from the World Cup, but said soccer's already-powerful momentum will carry the sport onward past the event.
"I started playing when I was 11, and it has grown by 1,000 percent since then," Queri said. "It is a sport that anyone can play. With basketball, you need to be tall; with football, you need to be big; with track, you need to be fast; but with soccer, you can have any of those attributes and do well. You can be any kind of player, any kind of age from 6 to 60, and there is a league for you."
Fansher believes that leagues are bursting at the seams with new players due to the sport now being multigenerational in America.
"Soccer for us was a first-generation sport. None of our parents played it unless they came from overseas or were in the military," he said. "My dad was my coach, and he learned soccer from a book. Now we are seeing second- or third-generation families where the father played and can now teach their son."
With interest surging, early success by the U.S. team could be a major boost to soccer's ability to draw fans to the fields and their televisions.
Hoping to capture some, McNellie's Public House, 1100 Classen Drive, and The Abner Ale House, 121 E. Main in Norman, will broadcast the majority of World Cup games. It all starts 1:30 p.m. Saturday and will continue to early July. For the early U.S. games on June 18 and 23, McNellie's and The Abner will open at 9 a.m. and feature a breakfast bar.
"The pressure is now on for the U.S. to have a good performance, and our first game out of the bat is England," Fansher said. "The English Premier League is the most popular league in the world. Our performance in that game will be critical to how much people will follow after that." "Charles Martin
photo OKC Trojans player Mike Suflita head-butts a ball at a Tulsa match. Photo/Shannon Cornman