There are few things in life as precious and lasting as the love one feels for a sports team. Sergio Bendixen, one of the best Latin surveyors that live in this country told me this one day while having a chat and a coffee: if there is one cultural heritage that is practically unerasable --and almost always reinforced to the extreme by the parents-- is the feeling of belonging to a sports club. We are fans of Chivas, Las Aguilas, of Boca, of River, or of any other team --independent of how much they make us suffer-- until the day we die. This feeling is even greater if that team belongs to a country.
To me, this is a blessing and a curse for a sport like soccer in a country of immigrants such as United States. Soccer has gained lots of followers but has not fully established itself. Despite its progress, at an international level it has not obtained any significant victories to help consolidate it enough to become a "mainstream" sport. But nobody loses hope, and the hiring of a renowned coach as Jurgen Klinsmann brings hope to many, even though he has not had much luck during his first games.
Win or lose an upcoming championship, the truth is that soccer has come to the United States to stay. Even then, without the backing of the Latins, it will be very difficult for it to flourish in a country with a sport so exotic for the rest of the world and yet so attractive to the residents of the country, as is the case of football --by us referred to as American Football-- and with sports so deeply established and massively practiced since childhood as baseball and basketball.
A 2010 Harris Poll on America's favorite sports showed that soccer was well below in their preferences. While 31% of those surveyed stated that they loved watching professional football games, only 4% said that men's soccer was their favorite sport. In between were baseball, with 17%, and other sports like auto racing (7%), basketball (6%) and hockey (5%). That poll, however, did not take race or ethnicity into account.
A 2006 Pew Research Center survey, which did take these variables into account, released general results very similar to the Harris Poll, except in the case of basketball. While 34% of those surveyed stated that they loved watching soccer games, only 4% said it was their favorite sport. In between were basketball and baseball, with 14% and 13% respectively.
When the Pew survey is analyzed by race and ethnicity, things change significantly. According to the survey, while 37% of the whites that are not Hispanics like football, only 1% tends to like soccer, yet among the Hispanics the favorite sport is soccer (with 24%), followed by football (21%) and baseball (15%). Among the blacks the percentages are of 35% and 2% respectively.
The survey was done among adults and did not discriminate between generations, but it is not crazy to think that the first generation Latinos are those whose preferences definitely tilt towards soccer. The Latinos born in United States have lots of contact with other sports since childhood and even though they bring with them the fanatism towards soccer brought upon them by their parents --and many become true soccer fanatics-- they tend to have growing love for teams of other sports.
Despite the fact that it was the English who invented soccer --and now try to steal the show with global figures such as David Beckham-- it's clear that in this, as in many other fields related to American culture, the Latino backing has been fundamental. The national team has players of all origins, but at the bleachers and on TV, Spanish is still very important.
It helps having sufficient funds and a well organized league as the Major League Soccer; it also helps to have encouraged the practice of this sport not only among boys, but among girls --with excellent results in international tournaments--, but the day that United States becomes World Champion, somebody will have to recognize the role played by a cultural heritage so deeply embedded as is the love of the Latinos for soccer. This is something not talked of much during the month of Hispanic heritage.