The New City Game

For the first half of the 20th century, baseball was New York’s game. Sure, romantics insisted that baseball was a pastoral game, a throwback to the days of yeomen farmers and vast farmlands. But New Yorkers knew that was all hokum-baseball was played in places like Flatbush and the South Bronx and Harlem. And while the players may have come from places like Cairo, Ga., and Spavinaw, Okla., it was New York that turned Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle into heroes.

By mid-century, baseball began to give way to basketball as the city game. The exploits of CCNY; the birth of the NBA and the Knicks; and the rise of schoolyard legends from the tough streets of Coney Island and Far Rockaway captured the city’s imagination and helped define urban athletic style.

Today, there’s a new city game, a global game for a global city in a global century. Soccer, the game of immigrants, has captured the imagination of the city just as baseball and basketball did for other generations. New Yorkers by the tens of thousands are gathering every day in bars, cafes and restaurants to follow the FIFA World Cup from South Africa, and for a few hours, anyway, many of these New Yorkers exchange their current identity for a memory, new or old. A third-generation Italian-American cheers for the Azzurri; an immigrant from South Korea, Nigeria or Mexico pulls for players with familiar names and faces.

Soccer was practically unknown in the New York of three baseball teams; it was little more than a curiosity during the golden days of the Knicks in the early 1970s. But now it has taken over venerable parks like the Parade Grounds in Brooklyn and just about any other patch of green in just about every neighborhood in New York.

Soccer has long been the world’s game. Now, in the 21st century, it is the city’s game.