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America sidelined

A Swede, a Nigerian and a Korean walk into a bar. What do they talk about? (Hint: It's not baseball.)

June 04, 2006|Andres Martinez | ANDRES MARTINEZ is The Times' editorial page editor.

Beijing — THE ADIDAS STORE on Wang Fu Jing Avenue, Beijing's main shopping venue, is a prime battlefield in one of the more intriguing global confrontations unfolding these days -- the struggle between international soccer and U.S. sports to win hearts and minds around the world.

"I prefer soccer," says Lu Giang, a student from Hunan University, eyeing $50 replica jerseys of the French national team.

"If [Michael] Jordan were still in the NBA, then it would be a tossup," she adds. She "adores" Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, the Brazilian and French stars who recently squared off when their club teams -- Barcelona and London's Arsenal -- met in the European Champions League final. Like millions of others across Asia, she stayed up all night to watch that match and is looking forward to the 2006 World Cup, which starts Friday.

But basketball has its hard-core Chinese fans too. Zhang Yong, a government accountant, is a big Houston Rockets fan, thanks to China's top celebrity, Yao Ming. Zhang has been watching NBA games for years on Chinese state TV. FIFA, soccer's governing body, desperately needs to develop a Yao-like Chinese star who could thrive on a team like Barcelona. Unfortunately for FIFA, China's national team is so mediocre that it didn't qualify for the World Cup (which is essentially a monthlong tournament for 32 finalists that have survived earlier regional rounds).

Mark Fischer, vice president of the National Basketball Assn. for China, claims that basketball is China's most popular sport. As evidence, he points to figures released by China's own Sports Ministry: More people play basketball in China than there are people -- people, period -- in the U.S. The game was introduced to China by American missionaries and even thrived during the Cultural Revolution. The NBA is now seen in China as a hip, personality-filled offshoot of U.S. culture. "The game is a good fit for where Chinese society is headed," Fischer says, "because it's all about expressing individualism within a team setting."

According to independent marketing surveys cited by Fischer, 33% of the Chinese population are "avid" World Cup fans and 30% are "avid" NBA fans. But among those ages 15 to 24, the NBA counts more avid fans by a similarly narrow margin. As Fischer points out, it isn't even a fair contest because the NBA is a regular sports league and the World Cup brings together national all-star teams only once every four years.

China is a bright spot in a largely anemic colonialist record for American sports. U.S. pop culture may reign supreme around the world, but the troika of our games -- basketball, baseball and "American" football -- hardly reigns supreme anywhere else, which is why we console ourselves by calling the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago White Sox "world champions."

Soccer, by contrast, is the one form of mass global culture that is not made in America. Bring together a Swede, a Nigerian and a Korean teenager and almost all they are likely to have in common is American culture. They will talk about the latest Hollywood blockbuster, what Ben and Angelina are up to and the latest American music. And, of course, if they can communicate at all, it will be in English.

Soccer will be the other thing they have in common. And they will talk about the recent Barcelona-Arsenal match and the World Cup. Most American teenagers would be left out of the conversation when talk turned to sports.

Globalization being such an American phenomenon, one of the intriguing subplots of the soccer-versus-U.S. sports showdown is that such U.S. multinationals as Coca-Cola and Nike, whose "Joga Bonito" billboards plugging World Cup personalities are plastered all over China, are among soccer's leading marketers. For them, there is simply no passing up the most popular sporting event on Earth.

Roughly one in five people on the planet watched the final match of the 2002 World Cup, and the monthlong tournament had a cumulative TV audience of 28.8 billion. Only about one in every 75 Americans watched the final, and it's hard to explain to the other 74 what the fuss is all about. Even the most rabid U.S. sports fans cannot begin to grasp what a match like England-Germany means to soccer fans in those countries. And that's because Laker or Red Sox or Steeler fans don't put their patriotic pride on the line (on top of everything else) when rooting for their team.

Meanwhile, just as U.S. sports leagues are trying to gain converts overseas -- and hoping more of the world becomes, like China, up for grabs -- soccer enthusiasts struggle endlessly to make the game seem less alien than the metric system to U.S. sports fans. They are having mixed results. Kids love the game, and the level of play keeps rising, but the sport can't crack the native troika's control of the fans' attention span.

All of which sets up a horrendous prospect: Nothing would trigger more anti-American resentment worldwide than the U.S. winning the World Cup someday and hardly noticing that it had done so.

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