“I hear about people walking around in soccer jerseys on the street, talking about the World Cup,” said an astonished Landon Donovan, discussing the unprecedented football fever taking hold in the USA. “It doesn’t happen like that for us often. In other countries that’s the norm, but for us it’s really special,” he continued, thousands of miles from his southern California home on Africa’s southern tip. “It’s strange, because when you’re here you are sort of removed from it.”
Removed or not, Donovan and his team-mates are driving a revolution in football – or soccer as it is known – back home. A US broadcaster has pumped millions into its coverage of the 2010 finals and sports shows, chat shows, newspapers, magazines and a mainstream media that has been neglectful – if not outwardly hostile – towards the game in the past, are running features and leading with news from South Africa 2010. Not since the USA hosted the FIFA World Cup™ in 1994 has the game taken such a grip on popular culture.
An estimated 12 million TV viewers watched the Americans draw 1-1 with England. The media was aflame and numbers increased for their second game, a 2-2 fightback against Slovenia. With a team of fighters and grafters, the Stars and Stripes' run here in South Africa has managed to eclipse an American sports calendar in full swing, with Major League Baseball and the even the NBA finals taking an unlikely back seat to soccer, considered a fringe sport through the years.
It was incredible to play with so many people supporting us from the stands.
The buzz isn’t just back home either, as USA fans have travelled to South Africa in their numbers, representing the largest travelling contingent of any of the 32 participating nations with 130,000 of the 2.8 million tickets purchased by US residents. Not known as travellers culturally, Americans are making their way to the historic event in a faraway land.
As USA fought back from a two-goal deficit against Slovenia in Johannesburg, red, white and blue were the predominant colours up in the stands. Uncle Sam hats, Elvis sunglasses and sideburns, and all manner of glitzy, gaudy Americana was on display. “It was incredible to play with so many people supporting us from the stands,” Donovan added to FIFA.com, knowing better than anyone how the side often struggle to muster a home-field advantage inside their own borders. “It’s not something we’re used to honestly, and it played a big part in our comeback.”
USA, who shocked the world to reach the final of last year's FIFA Confederations Cup, will be relying on their colourful travelling contingent again in their third and final group match, a make-or-break meeting with Algeria in Pretoria on Wednesday. Defender Jay Demerit, born in the gridiron-mad city of Green Bay - home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers - thinks the team can get a result that would likely take them to the knockout rounds. “We proved that we could score goals against Slovenia and we can create chances,” said the man who left the States to play in England for Watford. “We’re going to have to give everything we have against Algeria to keep our future in our hands.”
One thing is certain: USA’s fanatical, adoring circus of fans will be right behind them come kick-off time at the Loftus Versfeld. And for those back home, reluctantly taking football and the FIFA World Cup to their bosom after years of scorn, will they come to know the cruelty of the world’s game or the transcendent joys of unlikely success? And will a country so demanding of success still care about soccer in the cold gray of morning?