World Cup soccer drama captured Tucson, too.
A prominent Berlin newspaper on Monday trumpeted Germany’s World Cup victory with this simple headline:
“Wir schen uns in Berlin”
We rule in Berlin.
Another German newspaper used just three words on its World Cup headline:
“Es ist wahr”
It is true.
In America, we do not rule in soccer. We do not enjoy, as another German newspaper wrote Monday, “Sternstunde in Rio.”
Great moment in Rio.
But undeniably, we are getting closer.
On the morning after Germany won a World Cup championship (whose TV ratings in America surpassed those of the NBA Finals), 60 teenage boys arrived early for FC Tucson’s elite summer academy.
Some of them were lucky enough to be part of the overflow crowd at the downtown Rialto Theatre on Sunday, a “watch party” in soccer parlance, as Germany beat Argentina 1-0 in a gripping finish to the summer’s most compelling sports drama.
Some at the Rialto watch party were from the vast Tucson Soccer Academy, which has 32 teams and 54 coaches. And some were surely members of the 71 Tucson high school soccer teams that have reached state championship games across the last 25 seasons.
Es ist wahr.
It is true.
Tucson isn’t a soccer town, not yet, but it’s getting closer and closer.
The culture of American sports continues to evolve. In a country whose top four sports events as recently as 1975 were the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Indy 500 and the Rose Bowl, you could make a case that the World Cup is now pounding on the door to a new century’s Big Four.
The lead photographs on the front pages of Monday’s Wall Street Journal and New York Times were both from the World Cup championship game.
Soccer mania is as visible in Tucson as it is in New York and Los Angeles or anywhere.
Put it this way: Tucson is surely recognized as a basketball town (thank you, Lute Olson), but over the last 25 years, girls and boys high school basketball teams from Tucson have played in 53 state championship games.
That’s 18 title appearances behind Tucson’s boys and girls prep soccer teams.
If you researched the demographics of those in the 12-to-25 age group, Tucson’s favorite pro athlete is as likely to be Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi as it is LeBron James.
Tucson prep football teams have won 11 state championships the last 25 seasons. Tucson’s prep soccer teams have won 37.
Things have changed.
The Tucson Soccer Academy (TSA) and FC Tucson are probably the most ambitious and successful youth sports organizations in Southern Arizona. They have become the template for successful youth sports; those of us far above the 12-to-25 demographic probably didn’t see it coming.
MLS spring training has replaced Tucson’s MLB spring training and minor-league baseball industry, and, in fact, has taken command of its facilities.
In soccer, we rule.
Tucson attorney Greg Foster, a managing partner of the impressive FC Tucson venture, has become so absorbed by Tucson’s soccer growth that he has mostly withdrawn from his law practice and become a full-time soccer administrator.
“I am still affiliated with the law firm and still have some cases,” said Foster. “But in this time of rapid soccer growth, I had to commit full time to do it the right way.”
A month ago, Foster was in Rio de Janeiro, World Cup tickets in hand. He had gone to previous World Cups in Germany (2006) and South Africa (2010) but this was different.
“The American fans had by far the biggest impact this year, both in Brazil and in Tucson,” he said. “The watch parties I attended were unprecedented in size and involvement.”
Ten years ago, it was even money that the man on the street wouldn’t be able to tell you what the FC in FC Tucson meant.
FC Tucson’s elite summer camp has become a heavyweight.
It is sponsored by Tucson Medical Center and by Pima County. More than 125 boys aged 13-17 participated in tryouts for 60 coveted spots. There is a fluid waiting list; if one of the 60 goes on vacation, or is injured, another is added.
FC Tucson’s USL Premier Developmental League club enters the Mountain Division playoffs this weekend with an 11-2-1 record. Home crowds have surpassed 1,500 at the Kino facility Pima County built on faith and the idea that soccer won’t get too big for Tucson, as the Arizona Diamondbacks and their farm system did.
“To me, soccer in Tucson seems like a virtuous circle,” said Foster. “We can reinforce our community’s understanding of soccer through youth leagues, local events, FC Tucson and MLS spring training. Each one supplements the other.”
The next step for soccer in America is to stage an annual championship event that galvanizes the public, or to produce a universally recognized American star.
Until that time, in Tucson, the momentum builds. Futbol has replaced baseball as our summer game.
It is true.