The World Cup is the New Melting Pot


The World Cup is everywhere this year, like no year before. The World Cup has surpassed any chatter about the 2014 Sochi Olympics (even with all the angst between President Obama and Vladimir Putin), the 2014 Super Bowl and this year’s March Madness on social media. In Spain or Brazil this wouldn’t be a surprise as social media continues to spread throughout the world, but when did non-American football (soccer) turn into one of America’s favorite pastimes?

As a Greek American, I learned to kick a soccer ball right around the moment I learned to walk. I stopped playing soccer just before I entered high school, but only because my high school – or any high school near me – didn’t offer a soccer program. In central PA, soccer was that game immigrants played in public parks on Sundays, and I spent many days on the sidelines watching my father and his friends play the game on their only day off.

I grew up in an area where soccer kept diverse cultures – living in primarily white communities – connected. The game didn’t only contain an ethnic element – it was rare to see a white guy on the field guarding a goal or heading a soccer ball – but it also contained a palpable economic element. Soccer fields were makeshift grassy areas, unlike American football and ice hockey stadiums. If soccer aired on television you could only find it in some diner with a special satellite subscription.

The men on the soccer fields of my hometown were darker of skin and the players were almost always smaller than the players of American football teams. There weren’t a lot of Caucasian onlookers either. Soccer was a game simply dominated by ethnic minorities who appeared to have traveled to America with a suitcase in one hand and a soccer ball in the other.

The World Cup is recognized as the “world’s most widely viewed sporting event.” Estimates suggest 3.2 billion people worldwide watched the 2010 World Cup – that’s nearly 47% of the world. But the World Cup’s lightening-fast rise in popularity in the United States is an indicator of something bigger than social media – it’s an indicator of the rapid shift in the demographics of our mostly white country. Politicians may be fighting whether or not to keep immigrants out but it appears nothing is stopping the World Cup phenomenon from getting in.

The most recent census estimates show whites have fallen to a minority among children under five because of immigration rates and birth rates among populations of people who aren’t non-Hispanic white Americans. In fact, the last census suggests the white majority will be gone in the US by the year 2043. It may seem like a stretch to link the rise in popularity of soccer and the World Cup to the growing diversity of our nation, but no one can deny the infusion of various cultures into the everyday lives of Americans.

A colleague of mine, who was born in Peru, recently quipped, “five years ago most Americans wouldn’t have known if Peruvian was a nationality or a condition.” Today you can find a Peruvian restaurant in almost any city in South Florida and when you get there you can guarantee there will be Caucasians – who may not even know the rules of the soccer – watching the World Cup. It’s even possible you will hear onlookers routing for teams from Korea Republic, Russia and even Iran.

Soccer isn’t that game just played in public parks and watched by persons from other countries anymore. American football isn’t the only kind of football locals are watching these days, and the rules of soccer are much different. With every contest, every new American futbol fan, each Tweet, Facebook update and goal scored, it’s clear it is time to get familiar with the rules of the new game. After all, you may need to be born in America to become president, but it doesn’t take an American-born person to move into other political offices.

The soccer movement is moving faster than the marriage equality and marijuana movements in the US yet political attempts to appeal to larger constituencies like immigrants is going nowhere fast. For political parties desperately searching for ways to appeal to broader groups of constituents, if the World Cup is any indicator, it’s time to reform our immigration policies or today’s elected officials will be the ones watching the game from the sidelines tomorrow.

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