The Un-American Game

Our soccerphobia has political roots

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Even an unborn baby is kicking. That's how the secretary general of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of international soccer, explains the enormous popularity of the game worldwide. Well, almost worldwide. In the United States--where six pro soccer leagues have failed in less than 30 years--we refuse to join in. The seventh attempt--Major League Soccer (MLS)--completed its inaugural season in October, but despite the moderate success of some of its franchises there remains a lurking suspicion among soccer fans that the game is just not going to catch on.

It's not a question of Americans not playing the sport. The American Youth Soccer Association boasts more than 25,000 registered teams and some 20 million registered players. The Economist (April 13, 1996), noting that surveys show more than 50 million Americans are 'soccer literate,' recently described the phenomenal growth of soccer in the United States as 'America's silent sporting revolution.'

So why did soccer finish 67th--after tractor-pulling--in a pre-1994 World Cup poll asking Americans to rank their favorite spectator sport? Conventional wisdom points to the low-scoring games and the fact that the major television networks ignore the sport. (The networks have never figured out how to wedge commercials into the nonstop 45-minute halves of a soccer game.) But soccer scores resemble those of its close cousin hockey, and MLS founder Alan Rothenberg did manage to persuade ESPN and the Spanish-language Univision cable station to broadcast games (ABC even televised the league's first championship game). So there must be other reasons why many American fans still view the sport as, in the late sportswriter Dick Young's words, a 'game for commie pansies.'

A couple of sports-obsessed intellectuals think they have the answer. Oklahoma State University professor Sam Whitsitt compares soccer with its bastard descendant football in Raritan (Summer 1994), and he argues that our acquisitive culture celebrates the idea of possessing the ball, the essential point of football, but is deeply troubled by soccer, a game in which players can't even use their hands. And Andrei Markovits, political scientist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, claims in his forthcoming book Sport and American Exceptionalism: Why There Is No Soccer in the United States (Princeton, 1997) that the American cult of individualism is to blame: It's easy to judge the performance of individual players in other sports, he says, but soccer is just too collectivist. If they'd only stop passing the ball all the time!

There's more: Whitsitt argues that Americans can't stand a game that forces us to watch the lower body because it brings up deep-seated frustrations about our body politic, where the lower half of society does most of the work and the upper half does very little. (Americans, who want to 'just do it,' Whitsitt postulates, prefer to allow the upper half of the body to represent the unified whole.) Markovits (a soccer fan) fears that just as America's entrenched political parties have historically excluded radical voices, so too does the baseball/basketball/football establishment shun 'radical' alternatives like soccer--in other words, Americans like their freedom of choice, but are content to settle for just a few options.

Needless to say, not everyone agrees with this analysis. Rick Perlstein argues in Lingua Franca (July/Aug. 1996) that the emergence of MLS--whose collective 'single entity' ownership structure keeps the playing field level on the business side--may signal that socialism stands a fighting chance of re-entering the political arena. Perhaps, but in Whitsitt's view, a more fundamental change has to happen first. 'To be an American and to play soccer are two mutually exclusive things,' he concludes. 'America, before it can embrace soccer, will have to rethink itself radically . and learn to watch its lower half.' Either way, sports fans, it looks as though soccer is, as waggish sportswriters like to say, 'the sport of the future--and always will be.'

6/14/2010 9:09:50 AM

The US follows the tradition in English-speaking countries of playing its own sports. Soccer is the most important sport only in England, where it was invented. Canadians play hockey, Gaelic football is the most popular sport in Ireland, Australians play Australian rules football and rugby, New Zealanders play rugby, cricket and netball...

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