Thursday Nov 23

A Global Phenomenon

Whether you’re a soccer fan or not, it's been hard not to get swept up in the hoopla of World Cup fervor.  There’s just something undeniably profound about taking part in something that directly connects you with the vast majority of the rest of the world.  In this respect, watching a World Cup soccer match is an experience unparalleled in the sports world; it's almost like you’re watching not just a game but world history right before your eyes.  You can’t help but feel just a little bit more worldly upon hearing those vuvuzelas buzz.  With that in mind, and of course conceding that soccer inhabits a plane all to itself, I decided to take a look at the “worldliness” of our other big sports.

Some notes before we get started: For the record, we're not going to even go into Olympic-style sports.  These are only the big ones.  No one wants to read an article about biathlon.  There's something to be said for rugby and cricket, but because no one in America knows squat about these realms, I won't bother trying to teach myself about them in the next ten minutes. It's also not lost on me that for the Big Four, these are American-based leagues.  Inherent ethnocentricity aside, it shouldn't be lost on you that everyone knows that these are where the best of the world come to play, so save the comments.

Soccer: 208 nations boast a FIFA-recognized soccer team and 76 have participated in a World Cup. Still, this is not to say that all nations were created equal (at least on soccer terms). 11 countries have reached a World Cup finals, and seven have taken home the ultimate prize.  Going into South Africa, there were really about eight to ten teams that one could have reasonably predicted with any degree of sanity winning the cup. But because one only needs a ball and some flat earth to take part in "the beautiful game," soccer's reach is unlike anything else.

Baseball: Baseball, the so-called American Pastime, is of course filled with Central American superstars but the list really doesn't get much far beyond the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Panama and Cuba. Then you've got Japan, a handful of mediocre Chinese and Korean athletes, and of course, Canada.

Football: Football is even less worldly.  Outside of Somoa, which can barely be classified as "international,"  and Canada (dido), the only countries that can claim 4+ current NFL'ers are Germany, Nigeria, England and Jamaica.  And believe me when I say that the stars are few and far between here.  Of the 253 men in the Hall of Fame, only seven originated in a country not called the United States.  Still, Commish Goodell sees dollar signs abroad, and is intent on expanding the NFL's sphere of influence into as many new markets as possible.

Basketball: If there is one American export that is truly gaining traction in recent years, the NBA is it.  The '09-'10 season included 83 international players from 36 countries, up from 36 international players from 24 countries and territories in '99-'00.  However, there are maybe five certifiable stars at most if we're counting Nash from Canada and Duncan from the Virgin Islands.  Outside of the US, France can count the most NBA'ers among its ranks with ten, but can we really call this a legit basketball country when the closest thing to a star they can boast of is Tony Parker?  (And can we all just stop and marvel at what has happened to the American-born, white hoopster?  We went from Bird and McHale to ....Brad Miller?  Wow.)

Hockey: Hockey is Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, Sweden, and the Yanks, with over half the league of Canadian decent.

Golf: Golf remains an American-dominated sport, though its share of the top 100 has nearly been cut in half from 56 in 1999 to 32 ten years later.  There are four Americans and four British currently sitting among the top 10.

Tennis: Gone are the days of Sampras and Connors, McEnroe, Agassi and his ponytail wig.  In men's tennis today, there are the Swiss and the Spaniard, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and then there is everybody else.  Since 2004, the two have combined to capture a dominating 23 out of a possible 27 majors.  Still, despite the dominance at the top by what amounts to 2 countries, there were a whopping 15 countries represented among the top 20 ranked tennis players entering this past Wimbledon.  (America can only boast #6, Andy Roddick, among those twenty.)  Nineteen countries in the Open era (1968-present) have reveled in a countryman winning a major.

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