The World Cup and American Exceptionalism

by Michael Mandelbaum | June 24, 2010

This year’s World Cup demonstrates, as it has in the past, a particular feature of American exceptionalism: the rest of the world cares passionately about soccer and its quadrennial championship. Americans don’t.

True, the United States has a team in the tournament that has played well, earning a place in the second round with a dramatic last-minute goal; but unlike in other countries, the names of its leading players are little known outside their own households. It is also true that all the games are being televised here; but this is because the all-sports cable network, ESPN, with its several channels, has lots of airtime to fill. It is true, as well, that the number of people watching the games in the United States has increased; but many of them grew up in other countries, where soccer is popular, and brought their enthusiasm with them to North America.

In its first game, the American team achieved a tie with heavily-favored England when the English goalkeeper badly misplayed an American shot. The average English sports fan will remember that goalkeeper’s name for the rest of his or her life. The average American sports fan doesn’t know the name of the player who made the shot. Why is this, and what significance does it have?

America’s relative disinterest in soccer is the product, among other things, of history. Baseball, football, and basketball are already firmly established in the American sports landscape, leaving little room for another game. Efforts to promote soccer early in the last century, when more space was available, failed because the game suffered from the taint, in patriotic American eyes, of its foreign (and, to make it worse, British) origins.

Moreover, one of the established American sports, basketball, is a close cousin of soccer. (This is a theme of my 2004 book, The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do.) Both are games with simple rules, the point of which is to put a ball in a goal. The two require some of the same abilities to excel. In the last century the United States produced an athlete with the skills to become one of the greatest of all goal-scorers: quick reflexes, great leaping ability, and an indomitable competitive spirit. Unfortunately for soccer, Michael Jordan chose to play basketball, and his career illustrates the Catch-22 situation the world’s game faces in the United States. As long as the best American athletes don’t play it, the American team won’t have a chance to win the World Cup, which means that the American public won’t take it seriously and it won’t establish itself in the upper tier of the American sports hierarchy. But as long as soccer remains a sport of secondary importance, our best athletes won’t concentrate on it.

Americans find some of soccer’s features culturally off-putting, and that, too, limits its popularity. Living in the land of plenty, they like scoring—baseball, football and basketball have all changed their rules several times to promote more of it—but in soccer, goals are scarce. Soccer matches often end in ties, and Americans dislike ties, which are impossible under the rules of baseball, basketball, and the collegiate version of American football, and extremely rare in professional football. This might be thought evidence of a Yankee intolerance for the ambiguity and chronic inconclusiveness of life itself, but the propensity for ties in soccer leads to a feature of the World Cup that is unacceptable to Americans and ought to be, but apparently is not, unacceptable to the rest of the world as well.

Because the ultimate purpose is to produce a champion, the games in the second, elimination round of the tournament must have a winner. In these games, if the score is tied after the regular 90 minutes of playing time and an additional overtime period, the winner is determined by a competition in penalty kicks, in which players take shots at the goal from short range with only the goalkeeper to stop them. This is a ludicrous way to decide a championship. It is as if the Super Bowl were to be decided by a field goal competition, or the college basketball championship won by a contest in shooting free throws. The failure to devise a more appropriate method smacks of the kind of reactionary Old World lack of imagination that Americans have scorned for three centuries—in this case rightly.

Soccer, and the World Cup, have a final appeal to others that is missing in the United States—again not to the detriment of Americans. They are vehicles for nationalism. The historian Eric Hobsbawm made this point when he wrote that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.” The World Cup provides, for hundreds of millions of people, the occasion for intense emotional identification with the countries in which they live. Americans can be nationalistic too, but evidently do not require a sporting event to feel or express this sentiment, which recalls a story from another sport.

Some years ago, four professional American football players gathered to watch a practice of the college team for which they had all played. It was a sunny day and each had brought his dog. Three of the four players were small, speedy halfbacks, and each of them had a very large canine on a leash. The fourth player was burlier than the other three, but his pet was far smaller than theirs. They began to tease him about this, asking him why he didn’t have a bigger dog, to which he replied, “I don’t need a big dog.” The same can be said about Americans and the World Cup.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football and Basketball and What They See When They Do.

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