World Cup fever: Interest in soccer picks up as 2014 World Cup kicks off in Brazil today
BEMIDJI — A sampling of a few yells overheard from Bemidji youth soccer players during a practice on Tuesday night behind Bemidji High School:
“I want to be on Brazil!” “I want to be on Argentina!” “I want to be on Portugal!”
It’s not every day that young soccer players will clamor to represent countries other than their own. It’s not even every year.
But that’s the kind of excitement the World Cup tends to elicit every four years.
The 2014 tournament, which begins today in Brazil with a match between the hosts and Croatia, is one of the more anticipated sporting events of the year.
“It is a great time of the year to watch great soccer,” Bemidji Youth Soccer coach Tanner Baker said. “Kids talk about it during practice and they are pretty fired up.”
BHS boys head coach Rick Toward says the growth of youth soccer in Bemidji has led to an increased excitement for the World Cup.
“Youth soccer has grown pretty tremendously in Bemidji over the last ten years,” Toward said. “This week we start our summer rec program that will have a couple hundred kids between the ages of four and eight.
“Those kids feed into our more competitive programs, where most of the excitement about the Cup is,” Toward added. “You really start to see kids following teams and players.”
He also said the excitement was heightened for many youth soccer players simply because it would be the first World Cup they would be able to remember.
“Their interest is really genuine because it is their first or second World Cup that they can remember,” Toward said. “A guy like me has seen a lot of World Cups, but for a lot of the kids, this is the first time they see it on a world stage.”
Count Noah Johnson among those excited to watch the festivities in Brazil. The Schoolcraft fifth-grader said — like many other students — he is not pulling for the underdog that is the United States to win the tournament.
“I’m really excited,” Johnson said. “I want Brazil to win. I think they have a home field advantage and they are my favorite team.”
Younger players’ relative disinterest in the American soccer team may be due to the team’s mediocrity in recent years. Team USA made it out of the group stage in the 2010 Cup in South Africa, losing to Ghana in extra time, but failed to make it out in the 2006 Cup in Germany. Team USA’s best finish was making the semifinals all the way back in 1930.
So although Team USA has promise, they aren’t by any means heavily favored like American teams in other sports.
Toward said there are many potential ways to “fix” soccer development in the U.S. to compete with other countries on a global scale.
“You can take a page out of Brazil, which has some of the worst development leagues, but constantly fields great teams because their kids just grow up with (soccer) on the street,” Toward said. “Then you look at Europe where it is very structured with a lot of prestigious academies.
“We (the U.S.) are kind of a hybrid. What we need is probably a system that does not change our culture, like Brazil, and it is just what you do, while having regional academies across the country.”
Toward said the increased publicity of Major League Soccer has helped the growth in youth programs over the last decade.
“It has grown tremendously,” Toward said of soccer in the United States. “We have a very viable league in the MLS. Not only is it drawing fans, but it is starting to draw players.
“As it continues to grow, a I think a growth in youth participation will be parallel.”
The United States, playing in Group G, will play its first game Monday against Ghana.