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With the World Cup coming to a close, it is clear that soccer fever is finally sweeping the country. The best players in the world are on display throughout American living rooms and bars in record numbers. Is it for real or just a four-year novelty? Even though the United States has been knocked out, ratings are still up. Soccer is finally starting to catch on. But the sport’s forward momentum in this country has survived serious lack of sportsmanship, and surplus of whining.
So far this World Cup, the beautiful game has been just that inside the chalk, but the likes of Raymond Domenech and Rafik Saifi have made it look ugly off the pitch. With the media circus taking shape early on in group play, it essentially became a litmus test for bandwagon American fans: Do they care more about the flagrant off-field actions or the play itself?
Team France made headlines for its drama even before they set foot on the African continent. Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland in the qualifier and Frank Ribery’s sex scandal put the French national team behind the proverbial public relations eight-ball. Then, the putrid showing by Les Bleus threw the French camp into turmoil. Nikolas Anelka insulted head coach Raymond Domenech and was sent home, the team refused to practice, and the team director, Jean-Louis Valentin, quit in a tirade. It was a French revolution in front of the global media.
Then France lost to South Africa, cementing their position as the last team in their group and the biggest disappointment in the tournament. In his last appearance behind the French bench, coach Raymond Domenech shook hands with his players and refused the hand of South African coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira. Parreira confronted him, asking for a handshake, but Domenech still withdrew. He clearly shook hands before and after Parreira approached, but no handshake for the South African coach. And from the looks of it no dignity. Needless to say, ESPN replayed this clip for days.
Then there was Rafik Saifi. Who is that, you ask? The Algerian player that slapped a female reporter after his team lost to the U.S. Right, now you remember. Of course he was upset after the crushing defeat in the 91st minute against the U.S. Years of preparation down the drain. And of course the 35-year-old felt that the likely end to his international career should have ended on a better note. But an open hand slap is how he copes with the disappointment?
There is a history between Saifi and the reporter, Asma Halimi. She reportedly broke a story about the Algerian player’s marriage to a French woman last year, a touchy subject in the ex-French territory. Ms. Halimi, amidst the shock and chaos of the situation, struck him back, cutting his lip. Good job. This echoed through the international media louder than any vuvuzela.
Now, after the U.S. dropped a heartbreaker to the Black Stars of Ghana, these disgraceful off-field moments have shifted out of the national spotlight. If our national team were bounced in the group stage, what would the legacy of South Africa 2010 have been? Pouting Algerian Player Slaps Female Reporter or French Coach Refuses to Shake Hand would have been the lasting headlines. Soccer would have been soured in this country for four more years.
But that didn’t happen. Landon Donovan’s 91st minute miracle just may have salvaged soccer’s reputation despite the aftershock of Domenech and Saifi’s shameful World Cup exits. Americans have more to remember.
Taking it all into context, the focus on the sport and not on slapped reporters is really a testament to the growing interest in soccer. Ten years ago, Americans would have focused on the shameful headlines and not cared once our team was knocked out. But not this year. The fact that most new viewers stuck with the tournament despite Domenech and Saifi’s brash actions, even after the U.S. was knocked out, is proof that soccer is here to stay. Instead of finding entertainment in the public relations spectacle, Americans are now watching the World Cup to see the best players, not to see who flips out next. Thank our national team for giving fans something to finally cheer for and something to eclipse the ugly side of the beautiful game.