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Brazil World Cup and why US considers soccer unAmerican

columns Updated: Jul 13, 2014 15:02 IST

It was nearly eight years ago that I met a professor of economics at New York's Columbia University: Allahabad-born Sunil Gulati. Our conversation as we walked around the Morningside Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan, though, wasn't about economics, but soccer.

Gulati told me, "We could call it football but we have another football which does pretty well in terms of popularity in the US. It's going to take time but there are millions of kids playing and there have been for a long time." He had just been elected president of the US Soccer Federation, a position he continues to occupy.

During his tenure, the United States has competed in three World Cups, but been as competitive as the Dutch at cricket. Part of his problem, obviously, is that a sizeable section in his country considers football unAmerican.

As the Brazil World Cup reaches its climax, it has been marked by the quadrennial exercise in dissing the global sport. Among those at the forefront of the affront is author Ann Coulter, who opined in a column: "I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer."

Actually, if they do want to negotiate nostalgia, perhaps they ought to consider that the sport those great-grandfathers may just have embraced was cricket. The first international, played in 1844, was between the USA and Canada, and the venue was in New York.

Coulter, of course, is often witty, but in this instance, appears witless for the prosecution of football. In making her case against the game, she argues, "The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport." Perhaps she believes that Brazilian striker Neymar was mauled by rabid Smurfs.

Or, possibly, in a febrile world, such commentators seek solace in the familiar. For instance, going back to the ancestral motif, there appears to be some pining for the days of the Al Qaeda. As the New York-based Soufan Group recently remarked about the newly-proclaimed Islamic State: "To younger potential supporters, Al-Qaeda is increasingly seen as the scolding grandfather of terrorist groups, while IS, with its grandiose if temporary successes and slick online presence is most certainly not your grandfather's terrorist group." Maybe there's even some nostalgia for a return to the days when trying to figure out what the meaning of IS is, wasn't as alarming.

But to return to the other great game that's being played out, a retired professor of philosophy and religion, Stephen Webb, wrote in an opinion piece in Politico that football, unfortunately, was too ridden with Old World values. In that irony-rich column, Why Soccer is Un-American, Webb identifies the problem with football: "Individuals should not try to stand out from the crowds, one group should not have too many advantages over another, drawing attention to yourself is distasteful, and so on."

Webb's article, though, was written before Uruguay's Luis Suarez sunk his canines into a member of the Italian defence that had been dogging him, thereby giving rise to the finest headline of the tournament, Chewy Luis and the Blues.

Football, though, keeps growing in North America. As Bloomberg reported, nearly 22 million Americans tuned in to watch the United States versus Belgium round of 16 match. US goalkeeper Tim Howard also became a national hero as he saved 16 shots from the Belgians though that does show that the American squad's defensive tactics were probably as well thought out as the Obama Administration's foreign policy.

Unlike in America, I doubt anyone in India thinks football is unIndian, unless, as in the case of Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon, Argentine Lionel Messi hasn't heard of Sachin Tendulkar.

In 2006, Gulati did tell me he could try and help when it came to the sport in his native land. I doubt that ever happened. Back then FIFA ranked India at 157th in the world, now it stands at a sparkling 154th.

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