A colorful ‘Sam’s Army’ marches through South Africa

The United States showed more grit than any other team at the 2010 World Cup. In three of their four games they came from behind with an equalizing goal. In the other, they were facing elimination and grabbed a winning goal in the dying seconds of the match. Sadly, in the game against Ghana they went on to lose in extra time. But that does nothing to quell the fact that the team played with passion and purpose.

Passion was not reserved to the players on the field. The U.S. fans continue to show vocal and colorful support in great numbers in South Africa. In fact, according to FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, considerably more World Cup tickets were sold to people living in the U.S. than any other country.

As a Brit who has been involved with soccer in the U.S. for more than a decade, and has witnessed U.S. support at the last two World Cups, I am not surprised by this fact. I know that the world’s game has found a place in the hearts of many Americans.

These fans are very knowledgeable about soccer, are passionate supporters and bring a healthy dose of Yankee showmanship to matches — they love to dress up for the games. In my humble opinion, they rival any other country’s support for their national team.

Admittedly, this group represents a relatively small amount of people compared to the followers of traditional American sports such as baseball, football and basketball. But their numbers are growing at a fast pace. This is reflected as much by the increased media coverage of the World Cup in the U.S. as the large amount of supporters who made the expensive trip to South Africa.

I decided to join “Sam’s Army,” as a group of American supporters call themselves, and traveled to Rustenberg for the game against Ghana. I sat in a section of American fans, which included several women. This is another feature of U.S. support. They seem to travel with more female fans than most other nations. Certainly more than many European nations, whose supporters are mostly male.

Andrew Faherty, a New Yorker wearing a U.S. national team jersey and waving a giant foam USA finger, told me he is a season ticket holder for the local Major League Soccer team, the New York Red Bulls. World Cup 2010 is the third international soccer tournament he has attended.

Andrew told me why he followed the U.S. team to South Africa. “Apart from loving the sport,” he explained, “it’s good to have national pride. It’s a lot of fun to get behind your country.”

Andrew also talked about how American support compared to that of other nations. “We haven’t yet established a unique identity or traditions that fans of other countries have. The English, Dutch and Argentines have a very vocal and colorful traveling support. We are lagging behind, but I feel we are getting better.”

The U.S. national team is sure to get better too. Bowing out in the second round of the tournament is no disgrace. Heck, it’s better than the 2006 World Cup finalists Italy and France could do. And I am convinced that with growing interest in the game throughout America, and the continued support of the traveling fans, that greater success on the field is sure to come.

Yuval Lion is a former producer of “Worldfocus,”  NBC News in London, and Associated Press Television News in Jerusalem.

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