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Saturday, 22 June, 2002, 05:08 GMT 06:08 UK

US football comes of age

By Kevin Anderson
BBC News Online Washington correspondent

I am American and I am a football fan.

I should make it clear that I am not a fan of American football, but an American football fan, which some might argue is an oxymoron, American and football seeming to most to be mutually exclusive terms.

But like millions of Americans, I love the sport the rest of the world calls football, and like the rest of the world, my world revolves around the game for one magic month every four years called the World Cup.

Admittedly footie fans are the minority in the US. We are neglected by a sports-industrial complex here that already busy enough to satisfying the legions of fans who follow baseball, American football, basketball, golf, hockey and stock car racing.

Sometimes it feels that even synchronised swimming devotees get more attention than we do.

But every four years, American soccer fans have their own spectacle to take part in - the World Cup - and we savour every single last minute of it, especially now with the best performance by a US team in 72 years.

The love of the game

My love of the game began in the outfield of a baseball diamond in rural Illinois. Soccer, as the sport is called here, was such a rarity that we didn't have a proper pitch.

A state patrolman who used to play on the Army soccer team in Europe was our coach. He used to tell us of playing in the stadium in Cologne. We thought he was god.

Why did I play soccer?

As heretical as it sounds, I never liked baseball much, and even if I had, I suffered from a complete lack of hand-eye coordination as a boy.

My parents wouldn't let me American football. It was a wise decision that probably spared me with my slight build a permanently disfiguring injury as a result of some bone-crushing tackle.

But I took to soccer immediately, helped by my long legs, not hindered by them.

And I grew into a fan as I grew as a player.

I still remember my first World Cup: Spain 1982. I had been playing soccer for two years by that time, and the idea of watching world-class players seemed absolutely thrilling.

But my family lived in the country, far beyond the reach of cable television, and satellite television was an expensive novelty.

The only way to watch the matches was on a public television station that barely came in. I remember holding the small TV-top antennae and waving my arms to try to get better reception.

But I was thrilled even if sometimes I had difficulty making out which team was which because the picture was so grainy.

The search for respectability

As I grew up, interest in sport exploded, and by the time I was 18 and playing for a travelling club, we were starting to see international clubs at our tournaments.

But although soccer has grown into one of the most played youth sports in the US, it hasn't translated into the mass appeal of other sports here.

Even if mass appeal at home was not to be had, we at least hoped that the US would raise the bar in its international play.

France '98 was a setback, but I think that the 2002 World Cup will be seen as a turning point for US soccer.

I doubt that soccer will replace baseball as the national pastime, but for fans here, we started to see the beginning of a respectable world-class national side at this Cup.

For the first time, American fans started to see the fluid, disciplined game that we had so long envied in other world soccer powers.

The US may have lost to Germany, but we lost to a well-respected side and gave the three-time champions a good run.

There is a sense amongst American fans that the US arrived on the world soccer scene this World Cup. See you in 2006. We'll be there.

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