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World Cup notes: U.S. gains a strong foothold in international soccer

FIFA official Jerome Valcke says surge in interest in U.S. suggests soccer is turning a corner in this country

The unprecedented level of interest this World Cup has earned in the United States has top officials at FIFA, world soccer's governing body, believing the sport may finally be turning the corner in a country where it has had to fight for attention in a crowded sports landscape.

"We reached a new level with this World Cup," Jerome Valcke, FIFA's secretary general, said in an interview with The Times. "That's why we have to work with U.S. Soccer and we have to work with all the different parties in the USA to make sure that yes, we develop soccer and soccer becomes stronger."

Valcke said several indicators show that soccer is growing in the U.S., from the record TV ratings to the 200,000 World Cup tickets sold in the U.S. to the growth of Major League Soccer.

"It's just a strong confirmation of what soccer is," he said. "We know that it's the most-played game in the U.S. for kids until they are more or less teenagers. So we have to work to make sure that football is . . . played at all levels in the U.S.

"It's very important — and it's a big success — for the MLS to have football [specific] stadiums. It means that we have an infrastructure which is ready to host, in the best way, football. [There's] just a little more to do to have football becoming maybe not the No. 1 but the No. 2 sport in the U.S."

Valcke said the U.S. national team, which has reached the second round in three of the last four World Cups, has won fans outside the U.S. with "its fighting spirit." But, he added, interest in soccer has traditionally peaked in the U.S. during World Cups. The challenge now, he said, is to capture the excitement of this tournament and keep the sport growing even between World Cups.

"It's important to build on the success of this World Cup in the U.S. to make sure that you are talking about football as a day-to-day sport and not just as an event," he said.

Italian referee for final

Nicola Rizzoli of Italy will referee the World Cup final on Sunday between Germany and Argentina.

Rizzoli has worked three matches at this World Cup, including two played by Argentina: A quarterfinal victory over Belgium and a group win over Nigeria.

Rizzoli also handled the high-profile match between the Netherlands and Spain on the second day of the tournament.

Cup award nominees

Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who held the Netherlands scoreless for 120 minutes only to see his team lose the quarterfinal game in a penalty-kick shootout, is one of three nominees for the tournament's Golden Glove award, emblematic of the World Cup's top goalie.

The other two — Germany's Manuel Neuer and Argentina's Sergio Romero — will play in the final.

Meanwhile, four Germans and three Argentines are among the 10 candidates for the Golden Ball award, which goes to the World Cup MVP.

Midfielder Toni Kroos, defenders Mats Hummels and Philipp Lahm and winger Thomas Mueller, whose five goals are second-best in the World Cup, are the Germans nominated for the prize. The Argentine nominees are injured midfielder Angel Di Maria, midfielder Javier Mascherano and forward Lionel Messi.

Rounding out the field is Brazilian striker Neymar, Dutch midfielder Arjen Robben and Colombian winger James Rodriguez, the World Cup's leading scorer with six goals.

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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