Jonathan Chait

Soccer Triumphalism Turns Ugly

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I've been a long-time, tongue-in-cheek participant in the regular soccer Kulturkampf. But there seem to be a lot of people who take this issue deadly serious, and it's a little frightening. Max Bergmann at the Center for American Progress rounds up some of the unhinged conservative rhetoric about soccer. So let me say that, as a confirmed non-soccer fan, the prospect that America will one day become a soccer-loving nation does not strike me as dangerous in any way. It's a very healthy sport, and I've encouraged my kids to play it.

That said, the triumphalism of soccer enthusiasts is genuinely annoying. There's nothing wrong with having a minority taste. I don't think the fact that only a tiny portion of the American population reads TNR says anything bad about the value of TNR. This is a huge country with rooms for lots of different tastes. There are innumerable minority interests out therehandball players, model train enthusiasts, wine aficionados, and so on. The difference is that you don't hear model train enthusiasts brag constantly about how their pastime is sweeping the country.

Again, I don't really care if soccer becomes a major sport in the U.S. But it is not a major sport in the U.S., nor is it remotely close to becoming one. Bergmann cites two data points to suggest that soccer is a runaway cultural juggernaut. The first is that the World Cup has drawn higher television ratings. This is true. But keep in mind that the World Cup is a quadrennial event that creates massive international hype. Americans love international competition. When the Olympics comes on, we'll watch sports we'd otherwise never dream of following for the chance to cheer our country on against foreigners. U-S-A! U-S-A! Yet the U.S.-England match still drew less than any NBA Finals game. (Check SportsMediaWatch.) It drew less than NFL pregame shows, let alone actual NFL football. This is not a good showing.

The second data point is that millions of American kids play soccer. This is true. It has been true since the 1970s, which is when the claims that soccer is the sport of the future began. Soccer is a great sport for kids -- young kids don't have the hand-eye coordination to play baseball, basketball or football, but they have enough foot-eye coordination to play soccer. When I was a kid, my friends and I all played in soccer leagues for years. Then we got older and starting playing other sports. Even the kids who continued playing soccer mostly became fans of other sports. I realize that soccer can be played by skilled athletes at a high level. In this country, it is primarily a children's game.

The cultural backlash against soccer may get nutty at times, but soccer triumphalists bring it with with displays of smugness like this, from The Nation's Dave Zirin:

Among adults, the sport is also growing because people from Latin America, Africa and the West Indies have brought their love of the beautiful game to an increasingly multicultural United States. As sports journalist Simon Kuper wrote very adroitly in his book Soccer Against the Enemy, “When we say Americans don’t play soccer we are thinking of the big white people who live in the suburbs. Tens of millions of Hispanic Americans [and other nationalities] do play, and watch and read about soccer.” In other words, Beck rejects soccer because his idealized “real America”in all its monochromatic gloryrejects it as well.

This sentiment actually mirrors the right-wing's efforts to divide the country into "real America" and the unrepresentative coastal elites. People who don't like soccer don't really count because they're white, fat and live in the suburbs. It also fails on its own terms, because of course African-Americans are also loyal to football and basketball. But attacking black people for being too fat and unsophisticated to appreciate soccer doesn't have the same P.C. zing, does it?

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