We’re into the next cycle — as dependable as the World Cup itself — of the never-ending discussion on soccer in the U.S. It’s an incredibly predictable pattern, whose history is nicely explored in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism and Soccer in a Football World, and it gives me a headache. It always happens the same way: while fans, advertising firms, and networks gear up for the World Cup, a plaintive wail echoes across the land. This time it’s been particularly hilarious and predictable in its sources and form: Gordon Liddy wondering where American exceptionalism has gone and telling an interesting story about soccer’s history, Dan Gainor linking the sport to the “browning of America,” and Glenn Beck comparing the World Cup to Obama’s policies and saying that he’s never seen a baseball riot, whereas people always seem to riot about soccer.
This last is particularly funny for me, as someone who lived in Ann Arbor in the 1990s and saw plenty of sports rioting — when we lost, or when we won, it really didn’t matter — and remembers Chicago and Philadelphia victory celebrations/riots clearly, though Beck would presumably attribute all of this to out of control elements of American society. And it’s a decades-old story: some conservatives have long linked soccer to the twin enemies of Socialism and the World Outside. In response, of course, we soccer fans all feel outraged at the parochialism and insanity of such comments, and happily continue to watch the World Cup confirmed and comfortable in a sense that we are on the right side of history. In the process, we set ourselves up for good parody (see the spot-on entry on “The Idea of Soccer” at Stuff White People Like), confirming the suspicions of those we revile, and so on and so on.
There’s nothing wrong with rituals, and this one is just as satisfying for all parties involved as any other. But it’s worth admitting, I think, that we are very probably stuck in this routine, and that there is little chance of getting out of it. The positions about soccer are so well entrenched, and so convincing to all parties concerned, that I think it might be healthier to just take a deep breath and feel happy at the margins of U.S. sports culture.
Yesterday’s U.S.-England match was, for me at least, thoroughly enjoyable. There was huge hype about the game, we all talked about 1950 and Gaetjens, a wonderful set up for the event. It was great to anticipate, and great to watch.
Still, those who were drawn in but aren’t all that familiar with soccer perhaps ended up a bit flummoxed. Wait, a 1-1 draw is exciting? Two goals — one in the 5th minute — and another because of a strong shot but also shoddy goalkeeping (poor Greene!), and you call that a great sport? The U.S. team is always made to carry a heavy burden, unfairly I think — if you do well this time, maybe everyone back home will finally love soccer! — but we can’t ask more of them than what they did yesterday: played at their best, faced down a squad of incredible players, and offered up some remarkable moments.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see a stronger professional game in the U.S., and I’d love to see college soccer get the same funding and attention as other sports, here at Duke and UNC and across the country. In the meantime, though, the U.S. is simply in the same situation as much of the rest of the world: our top players try and make it in Europe, the center of global football economy. There will, undoubtedly, be a steady expansion of quality in the U.S. game, and this year’s team showed that yesterday: we have remarkable players — Altidore’s run and almost goal yesterday left me thrilled, as did Howard’s goallkeeping of course — whose fortunes we can follow and be proud of in both international and professional play.
But this improvement will happen whether or not we can convince those who hate soccer to love it, or at least stop describing it as the enemy of all that is good and right in the U.S. They’re yelling, and they’ve always been yelling, in part because they can’t really do anything. Soccer is, I would hazard, the most widely played sport in this country, with youth leagues, pick-up games, the extensive Latino leagues throughout the country, and professional teams some of which have very loyal and impassioned followings. Those who complain about this notice that — a little bit like Pete Seeger, blacklisted, ending up only being able to sing to little kids and so creating an entire generation schooled on the leftist anthem “This Land Is Your Land” — the great socialist conspiracy is attacking the most vulnerable in our society, the little boys and girls, inculcating them with its principles at the age of 5. Still, despite this conspiracy, the great institutions of our country remain safe: soccer has not taken over the big time of collegiate and professional sports in this country. Each World Cup, of course, brings slightly bigger deals for airing rights — this time around, we’re told by many commentators, ESPN is “forcing soccer down our throats” — and that is part of the reason for the squeals of reaction. Univision is reporting a record 9 million viewers for the opening day of the World Cup. But the machine of basketball, football and baseball coverage in the U.S. is, of course, much more powerful — it heavily competes with the World Cup right now on TV — and in no danger whatsoever from these occasional bouts of internationalism.
But what if this situation is just fine? It has its advantages, after all. The fact that soccer is marginal is part of what makes it fun to be a fan, for fandom is a whole social complex of habits, appreciation, and social connections, and our soccer fan culture actually depends on a certain fact of being slightly ill-at-ease. And it’s a pretty comfortable position to be in, because we’ve got the most tremendous back-up possible: the rest of the world. Soccer may also be better off without a full-on involvement by the U.S. — after all, any rise in U.S. power over soccer could lead to changes in the game of one kind or another, like the collegiate “time-outs” for commercials. Soccer is firmly anchored here, and it will certainly continue to expand in the coming years and decades. At the same time, though, there’s a way in which — at least for the foreseeable future — the sport is always going to be arriving, and it’s never fully going to arrive, which to my mind is actually a recipe for perpetual renewal and enjoyment of the sport and its peculiar fan culture in the U.S.
Perhaps we should just accept this — even revel in it.