The World Cup dominates front pages. Forget Sarkozy’s problems; the war in Syria has disappeared; Russia and Ukraine are far from Brazil; ISIS and Iraq are not competing on the pitch. Even stories about incomplete stadiums and social protests in Brazil can’t make the news. Rabid nationalism in the best sense has broken out all over. Even in the United States.
Yes, Americans seem to be joining the rest of the world in following soccer. Although the U.S. lost a heartbreaker to Belgium in the round of 16, the American public tuned in and turned on to the world’s biggest sporting event. Millions watched in the U.S.; the fantastic goalie Tim Howard has been put forward as a future Secretary of Defense. His picture has appeared on fake dollars with the heading “In Howard We Trust.” President Barack Obama, eager to ride the wave of popularity of the new soccer idols, personally called national team stars Clint Dempsey and Howard to congratulate them on their performances.
The President, who invites winners of the national sports of baseball, basketball and football to the White House called players on a losing team to congratulate them. What’s going on here?
The United States has never been in love with soccer. The Major League Soccer average attendance for 2014 was a little over 18,000, slightly down from 2013 and representing only 87% of capacity. Compare this with college football stadiums bursting at the seams with over 100,000 people on a Saturday afternoon. 81,000 people are on the waiting list for season tickets to the Green Bay Packers football team. Seats are handed down from one generation to the next, like boxes at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Nonetheless, over 16 million viewers watched the U.S. team go down 2-1 in overtime, more than the World Series of baseball last year (perhaps because my beloved Yankees were not playing).
Soccer has never been a major American sport for several reasons. Unlike the three national sports, it has few time outs (for beer runs or commercials?). There is no coach giving instructions for each maneuver; there is no serious physical danger except for constant flopping to feign injury to get a red card. American sports are very physical, which seems to appeal to the general public.
The physicality in football, baseball and basketball differentiates them from soccer and has caused the inevitable backlash against soccer’s growing popularity. The neo-conservative Ann Coulter, showing her xenophobia, said that “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of a nation’s moral decay…No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.” Karem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball legend, wrote that; “To the average American used to the hustle of basketball, the clash of titans in football, the suspense of the curve ball in baseball, or the thrilling crack of the slapshot in hockey, the endless meandering back and forth across the soccer field looks less like strategy and more like random luck. It lacks drama.” (He is from the Bronx, after all.)
Abdul-Jabbar concludes: “Finally, soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse. We also celebrate rugged individualism…We like to see heroes rise, buoyed by their teammates, but still expressing their own supreme individual skills.”
In other words, it’s the U.S. and capitalism against Europe and socialism; American exceptionalism versus surrender communism; horse-riding cowboys rocking to Elvis while smoking Marlboros, wolfing down steaks while slurping Coors beer against French-speaking soccer moms nibbling baguettes listening to classical music while selecting dresses to attend a fundraising wine tasting of the new Beaujolais at the local LGBTQ support group.
There are two very different ethoses here. Granted that the United States has a large immigrant population that appreciates “football” from the home country, à la Henry Kissinger, the real question is how soccer fits in to the fundamental American perspective. It is in that sense that one can only ask: What would happen if the United States one day actually wins the World Cup?