The World Cup in cartoons

The quadrennial World Cup is once more upon us, this year being held in Brazil. The entire world’s attention is focused on seeing each country’s team compete for soccer glory (or “football glory” in British English, but I’ll be using “soccer,” being American).

As for the question I keep seeing raised online, I can think of several reasons soccer’s traditionally not more appealing to Americans:

  • It’s competing with sports that’re already established here, namely our “Big Four”: baseball; American football; basketball; and (ice) hockey.
  • American sports are seen as “manly” and “macho” with athletes either quite tall (basketball) and/or heavy-set (American football particularly). Soccer players tend to not be massive in build (or outright skinny) and average height, which might lend to the image of not being “macho” enough for some.
  • Our sports rivalries are usually between cities or regions. The US doesn’t have much of a national sports identity to rally behind, as our main contact with other countries in sports is during the World Cup or Olympics. The closest we might get to international sports play is when a Canadian team is playing a US city’s team, but since Canada and the US share the same sports leagues, Toronto isn’t treated any differently than, say, Chicago.
  • There’s also our country’s famed xenophobic distaste toward anything that seems “too foreign,” which soccer can often come across as being.
  • A few of the rules are foreign to how sports here are played—“stoppage time” for instance. We also prefer tie-breakers to our sports, not games ending in ties.
  • Soccer’s seen as low-scoring and slow-paced/boring. Never mind American sports can be (and often are) low-scoring and slow-paced, of course.
  • Soccer’s harder than popular US sports to commercialize, as there’s little stoppage in play that’d let TV networks here insert commercials. There’s also no room for things such as “TV timeouts,” as pro sports teams here do—stop playing so that the TV networks airing the games can play commercials. Hence, soccer’s not been as appealing to televise historically, which means fewer people seeing it on TV. The exception to this is Spanish-language TV, for which soccer’s a sports coverage staple…but that might just add to English-speaking Americans’ “it’s foreign!” image of soccer.

So that about covers it. If also curious, the only soccer names most Americans will recognize (including, admittedly, yours truly) are Pele (rising to fame during the Baby Boomers’ youth) and David Beckham, thanks to the movie “Bend It Like Beckham,” his move to the US, and his wife Victoria’s fame. Some might also recognize Andres Cantor (not by name, but as “that Spanish TV announcer guy that yells ‘Gooooooal!'”). Cristiano Ronaldo might be a more recent name growing in familiarity, thanks to this year’s World Cup game coverage and, well, Ronaldo’s looks. (Or they found this amusing “Simpsons” clip from an international Nike ad online.)

That said, soccer’s profile in the US has improved in recent years. Television here’s devoted more air time to soccer and the World Cup, including specialty cable channels. Plenty of children also enjoy playing soccer. The biggest factor for soccer’s American future might be our growing Latin American immigration, and changing national demographics and culture as a result. Ratings for the World Cup have also greatly improved; the Wall Street Journal reports that this year’s US versus Ghana game drew 15.9 million viewers—11.1 million on English language networks alone.

More on topic for the blog, cartoons have also depicted the World Cup (and the “Beautiful Game” in general). Most American examples of soccer in cartoons either show it as a children’s game (“soccer Moms” and such), only mention it during the World Cup, or are along the negative/dismissive lines noted above. As such, most of the examples I listed below are from non-North American cartoons.

The Simpsons

The 1997 episode “The Cartridge Family” is probably the most popular animated portrayal of soccer in the US, per its hilarious but dismissive take on soccer in the episode’s opening scenes.

Still, like the country itself, the show’s also apparently changed its attitudes about soccer since 1997—an episode earlier this year was about Homer becoming a World Cup soccer referee.

The Guardian: “Brick-by-brick”

British newspaper “The Guardian” has on its site a series of “brick-by-brick” stop-motion animated films summing up various 2014 World Cup games’ outcomes, using Lego figures and bricks. While it’s not exactly “The Lego Movie,” they’re cute to watch. There’s also other sports done in this style, including this year’s Super Bowl.

Here’s a typical short. Look early on for Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” putting in a crowd appearance:

Mickey Mouse: “O Futebol Classico”

As part of its current, well-done series of Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney produced this World Cup-themed short about Mickey trying to watch a game. As the title indicates, the entire short’s done in Portuguese. Note the game’s announcer is Disney’s Brazilian character Jose Carioca, the parrot from the Donald Duck classics “Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros.”

The official 2014 FIFA World Cup TV opening

A special animated opening’s being used for all broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, including here in the US. YouTube has the opening, but for some reason FIFA’s blocked embedding of the video.

British comics and the 1966 World Cup

1966 saw England host the World Cup, and as such, various media tie-ins appeared, including some comics; this site dedicated to British comics delves more in-depth into their history.

The Adventures of Zakumi

The 2010 World Cup was held in South Africa, and had as its mascot “Zakumi,” a cute looking leopard. A series of comic strips were also commissioned (with Visa as the sponsor) depicting the adventures of Zakumi, as he learns to play soccer.

The Beat

Comics site The Beat discussed in 2010 various soccer- or World Cup-related strips.

The Oatmeal

Finally, webcomic The Oatmeal has a strip about how it feels to be online during the World Cup as a non-sports fan. Be sure to see the amusing bonus panel.

(Updated 7/19/15)

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