US football support simply phenomenal

LOS ANGELES - They might not have the best chants. They certainly don't have the oldest traditions. Their domestic league leaves a lot to be desired.

LOS ANGELES - They might not have the best chants. They certainly don't have the oldest traditions. Their domestic league leaves a lot to be desired.

And no one expects their team to lift the World Cup.

But by one very important measure, Americans are the world's best football fans: They have bought the most tickets of any country to see their team in action in South Africa next month.

The final numbers are still not in. But with weeks to go before the first ball is kicked in the tournament, US fans have snapped up 160000 tickets for the games, more than the combined totals of such hotbeds of football fandom as Germany and England, according to South Africa's organising committee chief executive Danny Jordaan.

"The interest from United States soccer fans in the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa is simply phenomenal," Jordaan says.

It's as tough to figure out how the Yanks can hold this record as it was to crack Italy's defence in the last World Cup in Germany.

It's certainly not that the American fans have an economic advantage over their European rivals. The US is still blighted by a sharp recession and American fans have a longer and more expensive trip to make to get to South Africa.

But after decades of rose-tinted optimism about the launch of football as a major sport in the US, the world's most popular game is finally reaching critical mass in the world's most successful sporting nation.

"The passion and knowledge about the game have grown tremendously," says Neil Beiethe, a spokesman for the official US supporters club.

The signs of that interest can be clearly seen every weekend on pitches around the country when millions turn out to play and support football teams.

According to Fifa figures, the US has a staggering 4,2million registered players and a total of 15million people who regularly play the game.

For the first time, many of those enthusiasts also have a credible professional league to follow and aspire to.

The arrival of David Beckham at the LA Galaxy in 2008 certainly helped raise the sport's profile. But even prior to the arrival of Beckham, soccer was growing steadily year to year.

TV pundits have even remarked that the World Cup will be easier to follow than the Olympics, thanks to a plethora of channels, led by sporting giant ESPN which plan to show all the games live, including 230 hours of high definition coverage and 25 matches in brand, spanking new 3-D.

Just as important is the composition of the US football base, which seems to include far more girls and women than the supporters of many more traditional footballing countries.

At the 2006 World Cup for example, many of the US fans were families who decided to combine a European trip with a sporting indulgence.

The same seems to be true this year, where the travelling contingent to South Africa will include dads, moms, boys and girls as well as the young men who usually dominate the ranks of supporters.

"We are spending a fortune on going," says New York electronics salesman Seymour Ellis, who will be travelling to South with his two teenage daughters for the first round matches.

"It's costing me a fortune, but soccer is their passion and we will have memories for a lifetime. You can't put a price on those."

Like most US fans Ellis has realistic expectations - hoping that the US can get out of the group stage and get lucky in the knock-out games.

But he's also hoping for a little more sophistication on the terraces.

"If we want to be taken seriously as fans we have to come up with better chants," he says. "We can't just be shouting 'U-S-A-U-S-A-U-S-A'. Frankly, it's embarrassing." - Sapa-dpa