The Un-American Game

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
(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

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.’

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