Rousing World Cup patriotism should be mirrored in squash … and racquetball
Hands up, who wasn’t thrilled by the performance of the USA in a magnificent World Cup battle against Belgium the other night? If goalkeeper Tim Howard stood for president against Barack Obama tomorrow, he would dive in through the front door of the White House.
I believe that this was a landmark occasion for soccer in the USA. Finally, they had a team to cheer. American sport loves cheerleaders. On Tuesday night they had a whole nation of them.
Finally, it all made sense. Here was an American team doing well on the world stage, actually playing teams from other countries, in a foreign field, and, unlike England, doing rather well.
It was, in many ways, a very British kind of glorious defeat. With real, backs-to-the-wall heroics in every part of the pitch. If only their strikers had exhibited a modicum of control when goal-scoring chances opened up then America might still be in the tournament.
Why, you may ask, am I writing all this in a squash blog? Good question. The answer is very simple, because American squash needs a Team USA to do well on the world stage just as the MSL (Major Soccer League) needs events like this World Cup moment to boost interest in a sport that had previously struggled to win a place in the hearts of US sports fans.
Squash has suffered from the same kind of difficulties in trying to break into an American sports and leisure market dominated by the Big Four: American football, baseball, ice hockey and basketball. In these sports the world championships usually feature teams from America playing teams from, well, other parts of America.
The federations controlling these sports are extremely powerful, multi-billion-dollar enterprises. Do they want soccer to succeed? Do they want to lose fans, and TV and sponsorship revenues, to a rival sport? Go do the math, as they say.
Gaining a toehold in this bitterly-fought market has taken soccer several decades and billions of dollars.
Squash does not have the same kind of financial muscle but the sport is still punching above its weight in many areas. In fact, the USA now boasts more squash players (believed to be 1.3 million) than any other country on the planet.
I have always said that squash is the ideal sport for busy Americans. They totally get the work ethic involved, and, apart from a few preppy institutions I have come across, like to immerse themselves in the social side of the sport, the shared beers after a hard-fought match.
The PSA and WSA have more major tournaments in the USA than any other nation. They are second-to-none in fund-raising. They understand marketing. They are prepared to pay an honest dollar for top coaches (unlike the UK, which is why we are losing so many of our best coaches across The Pond).
And they manage their clubs professionally, engaging professionals to do a professional job, rewarding them accordingly. In the UK, we rely on volunteers, and wonder why clubs are going to the wall. Most volunteers have a built-in excuse for failure: they’re too busy doing other things, like earning a living and looking after their families.
American colleges are growing the game at a phenomenal rate, and building some tremendous facilities that draw gasps of amazement from the other side of the Atlantic.
Just look at the new UVA squash centre at Charlottesville, built and funded by a $12m donation from a single sponsor. It dwarfs England’s national centre in Manchester, and just about every other squash facility in the UK.
The main missing ingredient for squash in the USA is a significant presence at or near the top of the PSA and WSA world rankings. America needs a Jonathon Power to spark some headlines.
The leading American players are grateful for the many wild cards on offer in tournaments like the ToC, US Open, Chicago, San Francisco, Richmond and Detroit, but they rarely venture beyond the first or second round.
The Squash Mad Ideas Factory has been giving this issue some considerable thought, and we have come up with an idea to raise the profile of squash in the Americas.
I know from experience how difficult it can be to conjure up local media interest for a tournament in America that features a group of players from England, France and Egypt in the semi-finals.
However, pitting Team USA against Team Canada, or Team Mexico, or Team Colombia, would generate considerably more local media attention. With that in place, it makes life easier to generate sponsorship.
How about this for the ultimate target? What we need is a Ryder Cup for squash, and, wait for it, involve racquetball.
As in golf, where the boundaries have changed, perhaps the match could feature The Americas v Team Europe.
Just imagine this for a line-up: Miguel Rodriguez (Colombia), Chris Gordon and Todd Harrity (USA), Shawn Delierre and Jonathon Power (Canada), Diego Elias (Peru).
Do we leave out the women? Of course we don’t. We bring in Samantha Teran (Mexico), Samantha Cornett (Canada), Nicolette Fernandes (Guyana) plus the USA pairing of Amanda Sobhy (the world No.13) and Olivia Blatchford.
Team Europe could include Gregory Gaultier and Camille Serme (France), Nick Matthew, James Willstrop, Peter Barker, Daryl Selby, Laura Massaro and Alison Waters (England), plus Simon Rosner (Germany).
The Ryder Cup features many kinds of golf, including singles, pairs and foursomes, so why not extend the format of our event (let’s call it the Barrington Cup) to include hardball doubles and racquetball? I am sure that racquetball world champions Rocky Carson (USA) and Paola Longoria (Mexico) would love to be involved.
I don’t want to be accused of any bias towards England. So perhaps we could call on Alan Clyne and Harry Leitch (Scotland) for the doubles and invite Steve Richardson (Ireland) to be the manager. As for Wales, Deon Saffrey and Tesni Evans are not far off selection.
Some American squash clubs are already experimenting with English-style racketball and trying to break down the barriers that clearly exist between the two sports.
Can this idea work? To quote the roof-raising chant employed by the American soccer fans, I believe that we will win.