A native of Camberley, Surrey, Fleming started in sports journalism in 1989. After six years in newspapers and another five in local radio on the BBC, Fleming moved to the BBC World Service in London in 2000 and traveled the world covering major sporting events, including two FIFA World Cups, the Confederations Cup, five Africa Cup of Nations, and European Championships.
He has covered soccer at every level in England, as well as competitions such as the European Champions League, UEFA Cup, Europa League, FA Cup, FA Trophy and League Cup. As well as the BBC, he has worked for Arsenal and Chelsea Football Clubs.
His career highlight was calling the 2010 World Cup semifinal match between the Netherlands and Uruguay for the BBC, and counts having a rifle lodged under his ribcage as he tried to enter the soccer stadium in Cairo during the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations as a lowlight.
Sorry US Media and Seahawks, but Calling Yourselves “World Champions” is Silly
by Richard Fleming
About 12 years ago, I was producing a variety of radio documentaries for the BBC on the history of soccer in the United States. Like many who play and enjoy the only true global game, I was intrigued as to why this sport had never been fully embraced by the USA.
I was in Columbus, Ohio, covering USA v. Jamaica (Nov, 2004), and it was here where I received an answer from a die-hard fan of the US men’s national team, which has always stuck with me: “Because it’s not ours. We didn’t invent it.”
Fast-forward more than a decade, and soccer continues to grow in this sports-mad land, but it is still not fully accepted, and the reason is this …
In a recent article, I suggested MLS may want to look at the soccer models of Holland and Belgium. Their two domestic leagues are minus world stars, but both have enviable reputations for nurturing and then exporting some of the game’s best and brightest talent.
“No, that won’t happen here,” I was told (by someone within the sport). “America wants to be the best at everything it does. We want the best league, with the best players. That’s who we are.”
The US wants to be the best in soccer, but attitudes need to change both inside and outside of the sport.
It doesn’t help MLS that winners of US domestic competitions in other sports are referred to by mainstream media as world champions. This is then leapt on by fans and marketing executives. All a rather insular approach, and mystifying to those who appreciate the real worth of the tag ‘world champions’.
‘And the Seahawks are world champions …’
All nonsense, of course, because to everybody outside of the USA and a good many in it, this is seen as attaching a rather grandiose title where one is undeserving. You invent the sport. You play it amongst yourselves. There is no relegation or promotion, no competition against international opposition. You play a sport amongst yourselves, having created it … there’s a good chance you’ll be the best at it.
There’s a good many, though, who strongly agree with the suggestion that a pro team playing a competition in global isolation (ok, NBA, NHL and MLB reaches Canada) can have the title ‘world champions’ bestowed upon them. This is not good for MLS.
Because, far from being world champions, MLS cannot even claim to be the best in the Americas.
Let’s accept for a moment, for the sake of my point, that the USA boasts (club) world champions – the best of the best – in football, hockey, baseball and basketball. The sport of soccer comes along. MLS is formed, but you’re not among the elite.
The USA does not have the best domestic league and national side?
Others do it bigger and play better?
I’m afraid so. Foreign lands get to pump their fist and beat their chest, reveling in the moment and basking in the glory.
That doesn’t sit well with US sports culture and the fervent fan following. The USA ‘wants to be the best at everything it does’. Remember that quote?
This great nation elevates the winners. It prides itself on being top dog. The pick of the bunch are the talk of the town.
And so, for all the great progress being made by MLS, you have some way to go before you get the recognition in your own back yard that your global game deserves. Until you produce the best, the kind words and column inches will always belong to the ‘world champions’, even if San Diego was the closest they came to the rest of the world.
So, how to change hearts and minds?
Well, before you can be the best in the world, you first have to be the best in your region. In the case of MLS, this would mean winning the CONCACAF Champions League. DC United (1998) and LA Galaxy (2000) were triumphant in the Champions Cup, but no MLS team has ever won the Champions League, which came into being in 2008-09.
Real Salt Lake came closest, losing in the final of the 2010-11 edition; the only time a team from outside of Mexico has played in any of the five CONCACAF Champions League finals.
The Champions League winners gain entry to the FIFA Club World Cup, which brings together the top dogs of Africa (CAF), Asia (AFC), South America (CONMEBOL), North, Central America & the Caribbean (CONCACAF), Europe (UEFA) and Oceania (OFC), as well as the host country’s national champions.
Previous winners of the FIFA Club World Cup include AC Milan, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Corinthians, Inter Milan and Manchester United.
The approach by the traditional North American sports in elevating the status of their domestic competition winners, despite lacking in credibility, at least shows that they harbor ambitions to be the best in the world, however deluded.
I hear the reasons behind a lack of MLS success on the regional stage – additional commitments, paltry prize money and squads lacking strength in depth being just three of them – but teams challenging on a regular basis will lift the league to new heights and bring US soccer fans a step closer to being able to legitimately label their team ‘world champions’ – the best of the best.
MLS can readily point to proof that the sport has grown beyond all recognition from when it began in 1996 – soccer-specific stadia, development academies, better all-round facilities, improved marketing, supporters groups, TV deals, etc, etc – but as that all begins to be taken for granted, it’s growth on the field which will begin to turn heads.
And that’s why it’s now time for the best in MLS to take the CONCACAF Champions League by the scruff of the neck and grab your chance to stamp your name on the FIFA Club World Cup.
The USA demands the best. Time to step it up …
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