FORT WAYNE – For many athletes, the Olympics are considered the biggest sporting events to come around every few years. For soccer players, the Olympics are important – but it comes second to the World Cup, which begins Thursday in Brazil.
The World Cup seems like it lights a fire, said Paco Castillo, Fort Wayne United Futbol Club’s technical director of elite and premier boys and girls.
People jump on the bandwagon, he said. You can see the impact it has compared to other events, like the Super Bowl. The World Cup is bigger than that. It runs for weeks. I can’t see how it wouldn’t impact in a positive way.
Fort Wayne United FC has more than 700 players between the ages of 5 and 18 who play in leagues and on travel teams.
According to the U.S. Youth Soccer website, there are more than 3 million youth soccer players in the United States.
The biggest jumps in participation were between 1990 and 1995, when registration went from 1.6 million in 1990 to 2.3 million in 1995, according to the website. The United States played host for the World Cup in 1994, which Castillo believes contributed to the increase in popularity.
Kids who saw the World Cup on U.S. soil in 1994 are still playing as adults, Castillo said. The expansion of the sport in the country helped Fort Wayne get facilities like the Plex and Kreager Park.
With U.S. Soccer’s bid to host the 1994 World Cup, came a promise to establish a professional league similar to the leagues overseas. Major League Soccer debuted in 1996 and, despite a slump in the early 2000s, now has 19 teams in the United States and Canada. It is continuing to grow.
For young players in Fort Wayne, having national-caliber player from the area such as DaMarcus Beasley gives them players to identify with and relate to.
Beasley started his career at Fort Wayne Sport Club and is entering his record fourth World Cup with the U.S. national team.
Sport Club’s Oliver Reelsen believes the MLS and the media have greatly contributed to a recent growth in popularity.
In 2006, there wasn’t really a following of the World Cup, Reelsen said. The games weren’t shown on channels accessible to everyone. In 2010, everyone had access to the games because they weren’t exclusive to cable. They were on channels like ABC so everyone could watch them.
Some of the girls on Reelsen’s U11 team were unaware of the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, but they could name several players on the women’s national team and knew they lost to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup title game.
In addition to the World Cup, several sports channels now broadcast English Premier League games in addition to World Cup and MLS games.
Castillo agrees with the idea that the media have contributed to the increase in the sport’s recognition.
The kids can take it in to a higher degree, Castillo said. You have access to the international players like Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portugal team that simply wasn’t available before.