The Olympics are probably the only other sporting event that is somewhat similar to the World Cup in terms of the number of nations competing and popularity. Even so, the passion felt for the Games is incomparable to that felt by soccer fans around the world. Following Argentina's 1-0 loss to Germany last Sunday there were several shots of Argentinian fans who were crying - something that is not seen quite as often by fans of other sports.
In the the 20 tournaments that have been held over the course of 84 years, only eight countries have won. Brazil has the most titles to its credit with five and Italy and Germany are close behind with four each. Argentina has won the Cup twice; the last time coming in 1986. Uruguay, England, France and Spain are the only other countries to have won a World Cup and of those only Uruguay has won two.
For years the U.S. never seemed to get it and it's probably fair to say that a good percentage of Americans do not have anywhere near the same level of interest in the sport, and certainly not the same passion, as the rest of the world. Maybe it's because there are four other major sports in our country in baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Maybe it's because some Americans share the view expressed in one of the two horrendous columns about the sport of soccer written by Ann Coulter in which she indicates that nothing happens and that the sport is boring.
The pace of the game may be a stumbling block for some Americans, but the country's level of interest in it has been rising over the last two World Cups. Ratings have also been on the rise. According to one report, ESPN/ABC were up 39 percent in viewership over the 2010 World Cup and up 96 percent over the 2006 World Cup. Univision was also up 34 percent from the 2010 World Cup this year. This year's World Cup final was the third most-watched soccer game ever in the U.S. The most watched soccer game ever in the U.S. also took place during this year's tournament when the U.S. played Portugal - a game that was watched by 18.22 million viewers. The second most watched game was Team USA's win over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final, which was watched by 17.95 million people.
In a way it almost seems fitting that this year's World Cup saw such a spike in ratings. Not only did several of the games go to extra time, but two of the opening games of the Round of 16 - Brazil versus Chile and Costa Rica versus Greece - were decided by penalty kicks. Soccer being the low scoring game that it is, the excitement in several matches was heightened waiting for what would likely be the deciding blow; or in the case of a penalty shootout, which keeper would successfully make the save(s), to give his country the advantage. With the play that took place, it is not hard to understand why several games in this year's World Cup began airing on ESPN Classic almost no sooner than they had ended.
The U.S. versus Portugal game in the opening round was one. It might have been hard for U.S. fans to think of it that way had the team not advanced to the second round, but the end of that game - as disappointing as it was on one level - was truly amazing. Victory appeared almost certain for the U.S. until Christiano Ronaldo executed a perfect cross to teammate Silvestre Varela connected off a beautiful header with about 30 seconds remaining in the game to stun the U.S. players and fans and end the game in a 2-2 tie.
Beyond the games though were some story lines that made this World Cup interesting. There was Costa Rica, not typically known as a soccer power, who - in part due to a very disciplined defensive line - advanced to the quarter-finals where they were bested in a penalty shootout by the Netherlands 4-3. There was also Mexico, who was on the verge of making it to the quarter-finals for the first time in their country's history only to eventually fall to the Netherlands 2-1; the deciding goal coming off a penalty kick that resulted from what could be construed as a questionable call for a take down in the box.
The intensity, drama, and, at times, compassion exhibited by the players on the pitch as the game unfolded, or after it had concluded, was striking. Players from nations that are less than friendly shared a sense of comraderie even as they were trying to best each other for national pride. Soccer is the world's sport and the World Cup is not only a showcase for it, but for its elite players. Americans will probably never have the same level of adoration for the sport as everyone else, but at the very least we seem to be gaining a greater appreciation for the Cup and the sport.