Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife
So this is new: I’m used to my football fandom marking me as a cappuccino-damaged rootless cosmopolitan who would gladly sell his homeland to the Frogs for a pack of Gauloises and a muscular rub-down from a vaguely Slavic pool boy. Now, however, I learn that I am actually a jingoistic propaganda machine spewing “nationalist dribble.” Well, times do change.
Apparently my misty-eyed ramble about Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria—undertaken, as all good blog posts should be, after a couple of beers—marked an effort to elide America’s “history of slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion, as well as its present day reality of ongoing racism, war, impoverishment, and inequality).” I’m glad I deleted the paragraph in which I wrote that we might as well just INVADE IRAQ AGAIN! now that we’re good enough at soccer to beat those Baghdad kids’ teams our troops were always playing for morale purposes. That really would have stirred things up at the Institute for Policy Studies, “a think tank without walls,” and perhaps a few other things.
So goes the weird life of the American football fan. I recently devoted a book chapter to my people’s shadowy existence. (A book written, it might interest the IPS Political Commissariat to know, largely in my “stoner anarchist” persona.) I guess my celebration of American soccer fandom’s grassroots, DIY nature might establish me as some kind of patriot, although probably the kind of pansy who, when pressed to identify what makes him proud to be an American, starts babbling about Miles Davis, Mark Twain and the Ramones.
But, then, I’m used to an odd and ambiguous national identity vis a vis el futbol. The night before the World Cup began, I was in San Francisco, out to dinner with some knowledgeable friends. (In fact, out with some of the Project 2010 braintrust, responsible for a blog brilliant enough to analyze Kasey Keller’s hair.) Naturally, we started talking about the then-imminent USA v. England match. While red wine and subsequent time impair my memory of the moment, I’m sure England’s relative terribleness figured into the conversation.
We were midstream, in fact, before I simultaneously realized that accents among the foursome at the next table bore a decidedly English flavor, and that they had gone very quiet. Some sotto voce recriminations then began to crackle our way. When our new “friends” departed, one gent made a pointed observation to the restaurant’s manager: “Football’s a funny game, and you never know. But I don’t think I’ll be disappointed on Saturday.”
It was, in other words, just a typical night out in any major American city, all of which hold people from all over the world and scads of soccer folk. All the same, it was evident that our fellow diners found hearing their team derided (or accurately diagnosed, perhaps) in dulcet Yankee tones particularly infuriating.
And let us face facts—there’s a reason ESPN hired a bunch of Englishmen to supply their World Cup commentary. Hell, I’ve following football for 20 years, and I even sound unnatural to myself when I say stuff like “they’ve got to keep their shape.”
“I think for a lot of the world,” I said (to no one in particular, I’m sure), “hearing an American talk about soccer is a little like seeing a monkey smoke a cigarette.”
“Right,” one of those knowledgeable friends chimed. “You know, on some level, it’s physically possible—the monkey’s got hands, he’s got a mouth—but there’s something not quite right about it.”
The political/cultural/sporting right wing will certainly never tire of their anti-soccer diatribes and lazy attacks on the game’s place, or lack thereof, on these shores. This, of course, despite the fact that the US undoubtedly holds more football fans and players, in raw numbers, than most other countries on Earth. On The New Republic‘s excellent World Cup blog, the ever-marvelous Aleksandar Hemon says about all that’s worth saying on the eternal (and clichéd) question of whether soccer will “make it in America”. As Hemon points out, Americans have been playing football for more than a century. We sent a team to the first World Cup. American teams compete in one of the world’s oldest national cup competitions. And then:
Beyond history, evidence can be found on the streets and in the parks of, say, Chicago, where on any given weekend you could find armies of people playing soccer entirely unconcerned with what some hard-nosed sportswriter or David Brooks might think about their game.
If dismissing soccer as un-American were not a sure symptom of windbag-ness, I would worry about the majority that not only disregards a minority but perceives it as un-American for being so. It is a fundamentally undemocratic position and thus fundamentally un-American.
I would add that the reverse is also true: supporting Team USA, and admiring its internal and nationally characteristic (i.e. rooted) cosmopolitanism, does not equate to endorsing Wounded Knee or Coca-Cola or wanting the Stars and Stripes to rule the world. The truth is, soccer in America is messy and complicated and big and sprawling. Like the country itself, you might say. The American game’s cultural, aesthetic and social nuances are beyond the thinking of the rigid and righteous on both sides of the political spectrum.
The monkey smokes the cigarette. He thinks it makes him look cool. He prefers Gauloises.