Soccer: It’s Not Our Game

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.”

8 responses to “Soccer: It’s Not Our Game

  1. Of course USA don’t have to win at everything as you say.

    But since Team USA are no longer top in Athletics are there any global sports at which they do win?

    Even the “dream-team” comes under threat and that is an American sport.

    Is America’s greatest international sportsman the Flying Tomato?

    p.s. where are Andy Roddick and Tiger Woods these days?

  2. ‘taken things that other nations invented, made them our own, did them better, claimed credit. I say we keep our hands off of soccer.’

    The benign imperialist. Thanks for leaving us soccer.

  3. shakespeherian

    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 think it’s a real shame that these are realistically the only options for the United States– that our notions of pride, nationalism and ownership mean that we either have to feel that we control something or disregard it entirely.

  4. I think it’s growing. I live in Dallas, and the pubs and bars around me were PACKED during US games, and had a crowd during other big games. My apartment complex is filled with hipsters, and I evesdropped on a group conversation in our pool – none of them normally watch soccer, but they were all excited about and watching the World Cup.

    So. I think as the US continues to improve and we go further in the Cup, soccer’s popularity will grow. In addition, the more immigrants we have, the more popular soccer will be! The Spanish channels show all the games.

  5. I think your post is quite misguided regarding soccer and America’s place within the broader global culture. While you perceive relative inattention to soccer in America as a good thing in so far as this inattention signifies a relaxation of American cultural imperialism, I argue that that is not what is going on. To assume that America has a unified response to soccer in the first place seems off the mark. As your studies of the sub-culture of Christian hipsters has revealed undercurrents of Evangelical America, it would be quite misguided to paint the hipsters with the same brush of Evangelicalism writ large a la Dobson. Soccer, like Christian Hipstersism is simply a sub-culture underneath the broader American Culture. And what a sub-culture it is! A mess of suburban reared kids and immigrants all working to develop an American response to watching and enjoying soccer. This is soccer in America. Nothing more and nothing less.

    I agree that the push to broaden the influence of soccer exists when the world cup rolls around, but this pressure comes largely from those who would hope to profit from such an endeavor, not from the folks speaking 3 or 4 different languages at the pick up game in the park everyday.

    Furthermore, the magnanimous response of “let’s let the World have soccer” comes across as the most imperialistic attitude an imaginary American monolithic culture could provide–something akin to the American refusal to sign the anti-landmine ban.

    Hopefully my tone is not too skewed from the nerve you obviously hit. I enjoy your writing. Thanks for making me think today.

  6. “Para dizer que ama o futebol é dizer que você acredita em igualdade aplicada mais do que você acredita no valor da concorrência e da capacidade do espírito humano”. Frase lastimável. Considerar que o futebol não valoriza o valor da concorrência e da capacidade do espírito humano é, no mínimo, desconhecer a enorme diferença técnica, tática e física dos países que possuem o mais belo futebol do mundo: Brasil, Argentina, Alemanha, Itália, Inglaterra, França. A superação da qualidade destaca-se em gênios do esporte como Pelé, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Platini, etc. Os americanos são duros de cintura e fracos de qualidade técnica. Talvez um dia, com muito esforço, possam melhorar um pouquinho. Abraços.

  7. While you speak for the majority of Americans, you certainly don’t speak for all of them (nor do I think you meant to imply that you were). There is a large and vibrant swath of American that loves, plays, and supports soccer in America (see swelling MLS attendance and multiple expansion teams).

    Americans don’t like soccer because we don’t have an “in” yet. The current style of play that most Americans see smacks of Euro-centricism and most of us don’t like that. Of course fans have loved watching the evolution of US Soccer into the burgeoningly successful brand that we saw in South Africa this year. Did we make the Semi-Finals? No. Will we in 2 Cups? I believe so.

    Bottom line: Americans don’t love soccer because they don’t understand it well enough. It is an acquired taste and I predict that more and more Americans will acquire a taste for it as the National Team increases in prominence and skill.

  8. Incidentally, Bill Simmons has a fantastic 20 Questions about the World Cup in which he makes many good points, but this is one of the finest:

    “Recently, Tiger Woods came closest to uniting everyone for a common rooting interest — remember the 2008 U.S. Open? — but his career imploded and he squandered that momentum indefinitely (if not forever). There is no “Wildly Popular American Athlete” or “Wildly Popular American Team.” We even turned on Brett Favre. We only share the Olympics together, every two years. A rotating cast of athletes that fleetingly capture our affection, and after that, we never consider them again.

    The U.S. soccer team could own that ‘everyone’ domain for the simple reason that it’s unattainable for anyone else. We always want our national soccer team to succeed; it would be un-American to feel differently.”

    We have no team or athlete that we root for as a nation. Our sports allegiances are fractured and localized. It’s a pretty special thing when a whole nation gets behind a group of men (or women) who in turn carries our honor and hopes with them onto an international stage to compete for world-wide bragging rights.

    Go read it all, it’s very well-written and funny.

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