“So, you getting ready to go to Rio?” asked my dentist.
He loves soccer. We often have conversations like this:
“What about the defense? They have that guy Besler, or am I thinking of Beasley?”
“Arrrghwa rahhbwa baahna.”
“Right — Besler at center back. How is he?”
But no, I’m not getting ready to go to Brazil. Just I didn’t go to South Africa in 2010. Or Germany in 2006, though I was there five years later for the Women’s World Cup and loved it. I wasn’t in Japan or South Korea for 2002, instead going through an intensive sleep-deprivation experiment at home and in the USA TODAY office, nor France in 1998.
When the Cup was in the USA in 1994, I made it to one game — Belgium-Saudi Arabia, which means I was lucky enough to see the goal of the tournament.
Don’t mistake my lack of attendance as apathy. I’ve always followed the World Cup any way I could.
In 1982, I realized that the nearly four weeks I would spend at summer camp coincided with most of the World Cup. I was just old enough to be horrified.
I asked my dear mother if she would clip each day’s scores and standings, if applicable, from the daily paper and mail them to me. Bless her heart, she did it. And in a cabin in the Northeast Georgia foothills, I duly copied them into a bulky notebook in which I followed each group’s standings and traced through the knockout rounds. If anyone at my camp needed a break from being pummeled in the rowdy sports that apparently built character, they could come over and ask me how Argentina had progressed from the group stage through the quarterfinals. (Not that anyone did. Go to that camp today, and you might see a few Messi shirts. There were no Maradona shirts in those days.)
In my USA TODAY days, I went to several Olympics: 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010. No World Cups. It’s pretty simple: USA TODAY sends scores of people to the Olympics. To a World Cup, usually one or two. (I understand it’s more these days.) It wasn’t me in 2002 or 2006 because the “print” staff hadn’t yet realized that the “online” staff had built a presence and that people outside our offices generally saw me as our soccer writer. It wasn’t me in 2010 because I had left.
I would have loved to have gone in 2006. Then again, I had one young son and was about to have another. So the timing wasn’t ideal.
So maybe I missed my window of opportunity. But I don’t really have any regrets. And frankly, I’ve developed a view that may shock most of you:
I’d rather go to the Olympics than the World Cup.
No, really. I got a credential to the 2014 Winter Olympics and only gave it back when I ran the numbers and realized I didn’t have the time to make the trip to Sochi pay off. Brazil this summer? Never even considered it. Rio 2016? I’m a little nervous about the preparation, but I’ll probably try to go. Pyeongchang 2018? Logistics could be tricky, but all things being equal, I’d be happy to be there. Tokyo 2020? Oh, I’m there.
Part of it is simple logistics. It’s the travel. Reporters in Brazil will cover one game, get on a plane, cover another game, get on another plane, repeat. At the Olympics, I could cover two, three, eight events a day.
The Women’s World Cup in Germany was as close to that experience as you’ll get at a major soccer tournament. Thanks to the train passes organizers offered up for a semi-reasonable price (hey, espnW was paying, not me), I could go to nine games in seven cities in 11 days.
I’m hoping to go to the Women’s World Cup again in 2015, but I won’t be able to duplicate that experience in Canada’s far-flung venues. Won’t happen in Russia 2018, either. Sure, the travel will be easy in Qatar 2022, but I’d sooner cover an ice fishing contest in Antarctica than go to that disaster-in-waiting. (If it’s moved to, say, the USA, I’ll at least get tickets, if not credentials.)
But let’s say you could pool all the World Cup games in a cohesive area. Would I want to go? Honestly, unless it’s in England — probably not.
The World Cup is not the Olympics. The World Cup doesn’t have the diversity, the color, the sense of wonder of the Olympics. It’s not the same.
And with a few exceptions, the World Cup features the same players you’ve been watching all year. You don’t get many chances to see Michael Phelps in meaningful competition. Messi and Rooney are on our TVs every week, sometimes twice, for about nine months.
Here’s the sad part: World Cup hosting rights are considered so valuable that the exchanges of goods, services and cold hard cash that surround them are one big beautiful tragedy. The 2022 Olympics? At this point, the IOC is practically begging cities to bid, lest they face an unappealing choice between Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Beijing.
Part of the problem is the “white elephant” label. Athens, Torino and Beijing had some venues that had sketchy post-Games plans. Then there’s Russia — Sochi was such a money pit that it has scared off the normally rational European public. No Winter Olympics should cost that much — you put up bleachers at your ski resorts, maybe build a ski jump hill or sliding track, and off you go. If you already have the ski jump hill and sliding track, you should be in great shape.
But there’s hope. I’ve been to London’s Olympic Park — a nice tourist attraction, training facility and host for various events. Salt Lake City unquestionably did it right — the Olympic Park and the Olympic Oval are humming with athletes in training and regular folks taking advantage of the many activities on offer.
And now, Brazil is doing it wrong for the World Cup. They’ve built a stadium in the middle of nowhere in the most literal sense.
So I’m not sure the World Cup can claim superiority over the Olympics on the “white elephant” syndrome. Not if the Olympics are planned well by a non-authoritarian government.
Sure, the Olympics could be scaled back, particularly the Summer Games. Maybe it’s time to split the Summer Games into a couple of smaller events (future blog post). But they’re still a wonderful event. Being immersed in the Olympic atmosphere is an experience I’ll always treasure.
The World Cup, on the other hand, is losing some of its allure to me. There’s so much soccer all year. I love the weekly Saturday wakeup with the NBC Premier League crew, my trips to the SoccerPlex to see the NWSL, and the steady summer diet of MLS. I’m finding less in common with the people going to Brazil and more in common with the hard-core Spirit fans, the masses in Seattle, and the English supporters banding together with their neighborhood club.
Then there’s FIFA, the organization so ugly that it’s hard to stomach any summary of their deeds that isn’t mitigated by John Oliver’s wit.
Of course I’m still going to watch the World Cup. I’m looking forward to hearing Ian Darke, whom I had the privilege of meeting in Germany, add life to the action. And after seeing Next Goal Wins, I have a new appreciation for the countries that strive just to get a small piece of the competition.
But when it comes to planning international trips over the next decade, I have a few things that will be higher priority than handing any of my money to FIFA.