Last week I ventured into Grant Park to watch the U.S.-Ghana World Cup match. Finding a place to sit didn’t work; finding a place to stand didn’t, either. Looking for any viewing angle to the screen—I eventually settled on a clear view of half of it—I passed a guy in a U.S. Census hat. “I couldn’t find my American flag cap,” he told his friend. “This was the most American thing I had.”
Sunday’s game against Portugal drew more than 25 million viewers in America, on ESPN and Univision combined, along the lines of a BCS championship audience. You might think we, as a country, have moved beyond our weird self-consciousness about not really being a soccer nation. (It’s etymologically defensible to call it “soccer.”)
For many Americans, the World Cup is a lot like the Olympics. It comes around every four years. It’s an occasion to wrap ourselves in red, white and blue and hyperventilate over a sport we don’t truly understand. U-S-A! U-S-A! Which is why so many of us were sputtering after Portugal snatched a tie from the jaws of defeat.
Yes, America, a soccer game can end in a tie. Sometimes a 0-0 tie, even. There is no overtime in the first round. In later rounds, there is also such a thing as a shootout, but that’s a need-to-know thing, and you don’t need to know yet.
The NFL’s ontologically maddening rules don’t seem to interfere with our enjoyment of the sport, nor does the NHL’s complex and evolving treatment of overtime. The most simple explanation is that Americans just haven’t had the opportunities to consume soccer; for all the ink spilled about the popularity of youth leagues, it’s hard to carry interest into adulthood without the opportunity to watch it.
There’s long been Spanish-language television, but the language barrier is high. There have long been bars catering to soccer fans with satellite packages, but mostly in big cities or college towns. The MLS is a mere 17 years old. That sweet spot to create fans, when kids are both playing and watching, has been mostly absent from American media, especially from about 1980 to 1994, i.e. my entire childhood. But that’s changed, too—a regular-season Premier League game, the most accessible league from an American standpoint because it’s televised in English and because it features many of the sport’s best players, was broadcast over the air in America for the first time since 1979 last year. I didn’t exist the last time around.
Nonetheless, adult soccer fans have treated with an offhand contempt in America for years: “hating soccer is more American than apple pie.” More precisely, it’s treated like bicycles, a fun and charming activity for our little ones but an effete, European, liberal affectation for adults. As Simon Kuper, author of two well-regarded books about soccer (Football Against the Enemy and Ajax, the Dutch, the War) put it:
I think soccer in America is sort of this Ben and Jerry’s–style, upper-middle-class American culture which reacts against a lot of the things in mainstream American culture. It’s not the only thing soccer is in America. It is so widely played and it’s also an immigrant game, but I think that’s part of the culture that it has there. And it’s seen as a kids’ game, as a girls’ game, so it’s a liberal game.
I had this interesting thing in Hoboken in New Jersey last year. I went with some Dutch guys, all of us adults, to play soccer on this field that we’d rented. This woman showed up, and she said, “I’m on the local council, and my kids play soccer here. And you adults are not allowed to play soccer here.” And she said, “And I’ll call the police.” Somebody else began shouting, “This is a field for the kids! It’s for the kids!” Which wasn’t the case; we’d actually rented it. But in their mind, that’s what soccer is, it seems to me. It’s a safe game that you want your kids to play, and it’s nice and it’s cute.
Which is why you get jokes like this: “Halfway through Sunday’s matchup against Portugal, in fact, we might have joked that it was time for someone’s mom to trot out with the juice boxes and Rice Krispie treats.” Soccer? To paraphrase The Simpsons, soccer is for teens and immigrants.
Whereas in the rest of the world, the love soccer is resoundingly nationalistic—see this piece on how Argentinans don’t quite embrace the brilliant Lionel Messi because he’s spent so much of his life overseas—Americans’ skepticism of soccer is nationalistic. Here’s Kuper again, this time in Football Against the Enemy, revisiting his thesis about nationalism and soccer after the rise of the Premier League:
In the States, being a New Fan is often a mark of being a cosmopolitan. Soccer’s advance in the country is an index of how American daily life is globalizing. The two groups of Americans who are probably keenest on the game—immigrants and their direct descendents on the one hand, and the highly educated on the other—are precisely the most globalized Americans.
You might dismiss all this as just anecdotal: of course Ugandans and Chinese and Alabamans support English soccer. It’s better than their own domestic leagues. But Musa [a Nigerian academic whom Kuper met in Alabama] believes that this support reveals something about changing allegiances outside soccer: people are deserting national symbols and attaching themselves to transnational ones.
Nowadays, smart-set types are expected to be conversant in European soccer. “It’s like the way you expect somebody to know what’s happening in ‘True Detective,’ ” said David Coggins, the editorial director for the Freemans Sporting Club fashion label, who writes about European soccer for A Continuous Lean and Valet.
Hence the nervous tittering some Americans do when writing about the game. Sure, the World Cup is fun, but we don’t really like soccer. If you sense a discomfort between the lines in the hesitancy to inform—“A tie in that game would also do the trick. We think.”—it’s because soccer touches on a number of uncomfortable places in American culture, like our historical strains of anti-intellectualism and anti-cosmopolitanism, and a deep-seated belief in America’s dominance in the world that pervades so much of our politics.
Alternately, you could not care and watch soccer, which seems healthier. If you can understand just the rules governing an NFL offensive line, you can understand all the rules governing soccer. If you can understand the intricate pieces of an NFL offense—much less the defense—soccer tactics shouldn’t be that difficult. It’s just a matter of watching it, which you have many, many more opportunities to do.
For me the barrier isn’t so much the tactics; getting into soccer by reading about tactics is like getting into literature by reading about grammar. It’s the storylines, the drama, and the meaning. Coming into a World Cup every four years is like coming into a TV serial at the finale. And for that, I like to turn to cosmopolitans.
My favorite thing anyone has published about the World Cup is The New Republic’s roundup of writers on their favorite players, including the brilliant Chicagoan Aleksandar Hemon. That’s how we fall in love with sports in the first place—assigning some kind of emotional or aesthetic meaning to what athletes do on the field. It’s not about how soccer works; it’s about how it works in the mind of the fan, which is universal across all sports, and something that can turn contemporary legends of literature into little boys, like Karl Ove Knausgaard:
While his teammate Ronaldo so obviously has practiced and practiced and practiced, and has a repertoire of tricks that he employs, Di María’s talent is precisely that which can’t be rehearsed. He will give the ball a little shove past a towering and fully prepared goalkeeper, a shot that a child could have saved but that is completely beyond the goalkeeper’s reach, because the goalkeeper’s expectation of what is about to happen is so different. It gives me goosebumps to see it, and I shout, “THIS IS SO GREAT!”
Howler, a beautiful and elaborate American magazine about soccer (full disclosure: co-founded by a college friend) included in its debut a crucial history of U.S. soccer: not an institutional or cultural history, but what American soccer actually is, compared to how other people play it. And it turns out we play it in exactly the way you’d expect a country with immense athletic talent but comparatively little soccer history to play it, figuring it out as it goes along:
A neutral observer of the last 22 years could be forgiven for assuming that the American style—to the extent one exists at all—is “try hard, run fast,” and don’t spend too much time thinking about tactics. That’s what happens when you have players whose athleticism (with rare exceptions) exceeds their technical ability. But unsexy as it sounds compared to, say, “Total Football,” U.S. national team players did (and do), habitually try hard and run fast. They eagerly compress space. They work in groups defensively and love to break forward. It’s a style that hasn’t inspired poetry, but as they said in Rome, Quod facis bene fac.
Oh, hey, it’s Aleksandar Hemon in Howler, writing about a pick-up soccer game in Chicago in winter:
I dismount my bike, lean it against the fence, and join the kick-around. I kick the yellow-and-blue ball to Duncan, an Englishman, who is grumpy already: the teams are picked too slowly, it is too cold, and he has to go soon—his work is snow removal, so there’s plenty of it. Duncan kicks the ball over to Enes, who used to play professionally in Europe. He came to Chicago from Western Bosnia, as a refugee. During the war, Western Bosnia was controlled by forces collaborating with the Serbs and fiercely opposed to the government in Sarajevo, for which the government troops exacted a terrible revenge as they swept through at the end of the war. Consequently, Western Bosnians in Chicago and the U.S. refuse all contact with Bosnians proper and have their own festivals, soccer teams, shops.
- Brilliant Orange by David Winner. I’ve recommended this book to people who know way more about soccer than me; I’ve recommended it to people who know nothing about it and don’t care. It’s sort of about Dutch soccer, but in the way that Moby-Dick is about a whale, to borrow a line. It’s also about Dutch culture, art, and politics, and is just an exceptional book about how culture and sports intersect. You can just be interested in that, and not soccer or the Dutch, and still enjoy it.
Brian Phillips. The Grantland writer can break your heart writing about soccer, even if you didn’t know your heart could break from reading about soccer.
Almost every other sport tries to be exciting by augmenting human capability in some way (football pads, baseball bats, tennis rackets) or at least by perfecting it (agile giants flying toward an NBA rim). Soccer diminishes capability. Instead of making athletes superhuman, it gives them an extra problem to contend with: no hands. When a soccer player scores, she’s overcoming not just her opponents but also the absurd demand of the game itself, which tells her to be agile and then takes away the tools of her agility.
If you think of it that way, can you understand the appeal that soccer has offered to billions of people? It exploded among the poor in so many colonized countries in part, of course, because it required so little equipment. But that can’t be the only reason. A soccer player is essentially belittled by the universe. But he outwits the universe. He grins at his ridiculous problem and overcomes it through grace and guile.
It’s hard to read writers like Phillips, Winner, and Hemon and not think of that strain of condescension towards soccer in America as an unfortunate cultural artifact, when there’s a world out there, not just in Brazil but in parks all throughout our city.