I am an American. I grew up on sports like football, baseball and basketball. Friday night lights. Little League. March Madness. Soccer was something we played in P.E., but never something we watched on TV. It just wasn’t a big deal.
For most of my life, I assumed soccer was just a game for fourth graders. It wasn’t until the summer after my first year of college–when I went to Asia during the 2002 World Cup–that I realized soccer was, as Stephen Colbert says, “the sport for fourth graders that foreign people take seriously.”
While I was in Malaysia that summer, everyone was bananas for the World Cup. It was on every TV everywhere, and all the restaurants were crowded with people glued to the matches. The guy who drove my rickshaw in Malacca asked me who I wanted to win. I didn’t have an opinion. But suddenly I knew just how big of a deal soccer is in every other part of the world. Subsequent trips in years hence to Europe and other parts of Asia have confirmed it.
It’s not a big deal in America. And that’s ok. I find it funny that whenever the World Cup happens, there is a new push to increase the sport’s popularity in America. Then it ends, and soccer returns to its status as a healthy, widespread youth team sport (and nothing more).
Most every kid in America plays soccer in their youth, but–as Dave Eggers notes in his brilliant recent essay about soccer–the majority of us quickly grow out of it:
At about age 10, something happens to the children of the United States. Soccer is dropped, quickly and unceremoniously, by approximately 88 percent of all young people. The same kids who played at 5, 6, 7, move on to baseball, football, basketball, hockey, field hockey, and, sadly, golf. Shortly thereafter, they stop playing these sports, too, and begin watching these sports on television, including, sadly, golf.
I was rooting for team USA in this World Cup (though I didn’t watch more than a few minutes of any of the matches), and I was glad they went pretty far. But when they lost to Ghana, I was neither surprised nor disappointed. This is not our sport. It belongs to the non-American world. Every person in Ghana was doubtless overjoyed to see their nation defeat America. A win like that for a small, poor nation like Ghana–especially when the World Cup is happening in Africa for the first time–might even be the sort of nationalist morale-booster that could legitimately change Ghana for the better. Had the U.S. prevailed in the match, many Americans would have been thrilled, but certainly not all of them. It would have lit up Facebook and Twitter for a few hours, and then faded away. Bill Clinton might have parlayed the excitement of America’s good showing in the Cup into a convincing case for the Cup’s return to America in 2018. But alas, it didn’t happen.
Just as well.
I don’t mean to say soccer isn’t a good sport or that Americans shouldn’t pay attention to it. I personally don’t find it all that exciting, and clearly most other Americans agree with me. But the rest of the world finds it VERY exciting, and I’m happy for them. America doesn’t have to win at everything. And we don’t need to be upset that in the case of soccer, America is not like the rest of the world. For too long, America has made the rest of the world too much like itself. We’ve colonized too much already: taken things that other nations invented, made them our own, did them better, claimed credit. I say we keep our hands off of soccer.
I love Chuck Klosterman’s essay on soccer in Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs. I’ll conclude with a fun (and a bit ridiculous) excerpt from it:
“Soccer fanatics love to tell you that soccer is the most popular game on earth and that it’s played by 500 million people every day, as if that somehow proves its value. Actually, the opposite is true. Why should I care that every single citizen of Chile and Iran and Gibraltar thoughtlessly adores “futball”? Do the people making this argument also assume Coca-Cola is ambrosia? Real Sports aren’t for everyone. And don’t accuse me of being the Ugly American for degrading soccer. That has nothing to do with it. It’s not xenophobic to hate soccer; it’s socially reprehensible to support it. To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit. It should surprise no one that Benito Mussolini loved being photographed with Italian soccer stars during the 1930s; they were undoubtedly kindred spirits. I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer. Every time I pull up behind a Ford Aerostar with a “#1 Soccer Mom” bumper sticker, I feel like I’m marching in the wake of the Khmer Rouge.”