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Radoff: As World Cup approaches, soccer in need of change

If you have not been reminded over and over by this point, you soon will: the World Cup is mere weeks away. There is nothing quite like it, a World’s Fair for nothing but the beautiful game. The men who will be representing our nation in Brazil left campus only days ago, ultimately much fewer in numbers than the men who arrived.

As much as I would like to avoid addressing the fact that members of the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) could walk freely around campus, it is impossible to overlook. It may certainly be said that Stanford’s unique (in a good way) atmosphere, which silently respects excellence, contributes to the relaxed treatment of the USMNT.

However, that is less than half the story. If LeBron James or Peyton Manning or Beyonce (have you seen her move?) go almost anywhere in the country, they will eventually be surrounded by people. Can you imagine what happens when LeBron ends up on the streets of Shanghai?

That just does not happen with the gentlemen of the USMNT. There are a number of obvious reasons. Firstly, soccer is not even close to the most popular sport here. In addition, with the departure of Landon Donovan, the USMNT lacks a true iconic star.

As such, even though NBC, ESPN/ABC and Fox have begun to increase the sport’s exposure, one can only feel as though the popularity of the sport today is the same as it was four years ago. What’s more, there is a noted absence of nationalism associated with the World Cup in the U.S.

Here, if you have four favorite teams, the USMNT may not even be third on your list. Go ask someone, or better yet, just look around. You will see Americans in German, Spanish and Brazilian kits, and I am one of the worst offenders; out of three jerseys, I do not even have a U.S. one. I’m pretty sure that is high treason in some countries.

Do not get me wrong: I root for one team when the red, white and blue play, and the international teams’ jerseys that I own are as much mementos of the places I have visited as they are my love of the sport.

All of this makes me wonder what the future of soccer will be. Starting next year in summer of 2015, the World Cup will have its first competitor: the Basketball World Cup. Soccer has existed for hundreds of years and was the benefactor of cultural imperialism (sorry Europe). Basketball is born of the 20th century and, in the past two decades, has caught on like a wildfire.

Basketball is now a global sport, and it may start to challenge soccer for the global crown if it continues to grow like it has, maybe without ever being the most popular sport in America. Soccer, in turn, is beginning to fall behind, as it needs to evolve on more than just one level.

Think about the rule changes that have been made in our own sports. Do you know how old the replay system is in the NFL? Go ahead, no phone, take a guess right now. Did you guess 28? Because we are two years shy of 30 years of video replay in the NFL.

In contrast, 30 years is about how long it took for FIFA president Sepp Blatter — a man just as wonderful and accommodating as his name implies —  to finally adopt goal-line cameras (ok, eight years). The changes do not have to be monumental. For example, clock stoppages would help curb fake injuries and other silly time-wasting techniques, like picking up the ball at stoppages.

Or how about a challenge system? Or more than three subs in a game? I have to say, if I could see the implementation of one rule change, it would be the elimination of the shootout. However, that change will likely never happen.

Time and time again, small changes like these have been suggested, yet purists, like Blatter, are unwilling to even consider it for no other reason than it is different. Soccer has not reached any sort of crisis, but there will be a time soon when the sport will need to change, as its competition with other sports grows.

Though I doubt that soccer will ever truly be supplanted as the world’s sport, I wonder: will soccer evolve, or like boxing, will FIFA refuse to change its model, and as a result, be marginalized for it.
Nic Radoff may need to find a hiding place after admitting to owning three non-USMNT jerseys. To suggest places to hide, e-mail him at nradoff  ‘at’ stanford.edu.