Wiedmer: World Cup big here, too

Wiedmer: World Cup big here, too

May 12th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

For a lot of us in the Tennessee Valley, the fact that the United States faces England 31 days from today in its opening World Cup match is only moderately exciting. We're probably much more concerned with how the American college football teams at Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee will look when they don full pads about 90 days from now.

But St. Nicholas School Spanish teacher Maria Gonzalez saw a chance to use the World Cup to teach a lesson bigger than sports Tuesday.

Drawing on her lifelong love of soccer, she invited the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's soccer team and the Chattanooga Football Club to speak and give a clinic to the school's 210 students.

"As their language and culture studies teacher, the idea is to bring the world to them," said Gonzalez, who wore Spain's World Cup jersey to school. "To let them realize what a big place it is and how many things we have in common rather than what sets us apart.

"Soccer lends itself to that perfectly, and with the World Cup starting in a month, it's just a great day to celebrate the sport and sportsmanship."

So there were third-graders Dillan Desai, Elizabeth Case, Ian Campbell and Caitlin O'Brien blasting balls past the Lady Mocs, then saying, as O'Brien did, "I learned that it's more important to have sportsmanship than to win games."

Or Campbell, clad in a Germany shirt, proclaiming, "I want Spain to win."

Or Desai, grinning wide, "I loved all of it."

This is the message that Chattanooga FC member Joshua Scott was hoping to get across when he and teammates Chris Ochieng, Russell Courtney, Andrew Stewart and Ivan Heredia agreed to do two one-hour clinics for St. Nicholas's third-, fourth- and fifth-graders Tuesday afternoon.

"I think it's brilliant," Scott began, "that there are different coaches from different countries that can bring different styles, different senses of humor, different ways of coaching so these kids can kind of have an insight of what's out there and different cultures.

"Instead of being the players no one speaks to, always in the dark, I feel like coming to clinics like this we can get on a one-on-one connection with the kids, make them feel comfortable coming to CFC games."

UTC soccer coach J.D. Kyzer has noticed an increased interest over the years.

"I'm 50, and I grew up in South Carolina dribbling around trees," he said. "One reason soccer hasn't been bigger in this country is because we didn't create soccer. We created baseball and basketball and our football, and they may always be bigger here. But more people play soccer in this country than any other sport.

"Ten years ago you couldn't find a soccer game on television. Now you look at ESPN's Top 10 plays and there may be two or three soccer plays in there on a given night."

According to Gonzalez, nearly 10 times as many people worldwide will watch the World Cup final as the Super Bowl.

And it's not just that they watch, Kyzer said. It's how they watch.

"Whole countries shut down to watch their team in the World Cup," he said. "You can't get a cup of coffee in Brazil or Germany or Spain when they're playing a World Cup match."

This is not the main reason St. Nicholas headmaster Mark Fallo embraced the concept of a World Cup Day, or why Gonzalez was proud to see more than 70 percent of the school's students wear soccer jerseys to school Tuesday.

"We talk all the time about our three R's -- Respect, Responsibility and the (Golden) Rule," Fallo said. "We bring them up every day during chapel. My hope is that learning about other cultures through soccer will help that. I know that Maria does a great job of getting them excited from a global perspective."

Maybe this all will lead to more soccer fans, and maybe it won't. Even UTC rising sophomore Anna Cusick said of Tuesday's clinic, "I'm just hoping it builds recognition. But I'd love for them to learn to love the sport, to be passionate about it."

And maybe that's where we have more in common with our World Cup brethren than we think.

Asked to give an example of his country's love for soccer, the 23-year-old Scott, a native of London, England, replied, "People fall in love with people who support the same team they do. Marriages are made over soccer. It's very intense."

Sound like any SEC football fans you know?