I bought a book in Sydney Airport recently to pass away some time on the long trip home – How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer. The UK version substitutes ‘football’ for ‘soccer’ in the title – although even the Aussies are starting to call football by its proper name these days, what with the recent success of the Socceroos!
With chapters on the violently nationalistic following of Red Star Belgrade, on the Celtic-Rangers rivalry (inevitably), on Barcelona (Foer’s favourite team) as the symbol of the Catalan spirit, on the European Jewish football teams, and more besides, it turned out to be a diverting if idiosyncratic read. Much of it I found I already knew at least a little about (and quite a lot about when it came to the Glasgow divide), but the chapter that interested me most was the final one: How Soccer Explains the American Culture Wars.
I hadn’t realised – if it is indeed true – that soccer is seen in large parts of the USA as representing, “the fundamental tenets of yuppie parenting, the spirit of Sesame Street and Dr Benjamin Spock.” Baby boomer parents prefer soccer to the stylized violence of American Football; they prefer the team spirit of soccer to the stress and the ‘ego-deflating encounters’ that are part and parcel of baseball; and, at least until Larry Bird came along, they preferred it to basketball, the sport with the ‘hint of the ghetto’. But their liking for soccer was diluted by their need to ‘minimize the pain of competition’ for their precious darlings – and so little league soccer has often been organised in such a way that it minimizes competition and the need-to-win attitude, and maximizes participation. So, teams were often dissolved and re-constituted each year ‘to preclude adults from building their own dynasty ‘win at all costs’ situations’. In some cases, all players in a league were handed ‘participation’ trophies. Some leagues stopped posting scores. Some leagues banned heading the ball because of the ‘potential’ for brain injury. And so on….
The effect of all of this, according to Foer, is that, in just about every other part of the world, with a small number of notable exceptions, soccer is still the province of the working classes (even if the biggest stars achieve very un-working-class salaries). But in the USA, apart from where it is played by Latino immigrants, soccer is a game for the professional classes.
As a result, there is a big anti-soccer lobby in the USA. Tom Weir, of USA Today, has written that, “hating soccer is more American than apple pie, driving a pickup, or spending Saturday afternoons channel surfing with the remote control.” Some, indeed, see soccer as a threat to the ‘American way of life’. Jack Kemp, in the 1980s, sought to make clear the distinction between ‘democratic, capitalistic football’, and ‘European, socialist soccer’. As Jim Rome said, “My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball.”
Ultimately, Foer sees the differing opinions on soccer in the USA as an example of the fear that globalization is causing many of his own countrymen – it is a touchstone in the cultural divide between the ‘American exceptionalists’ and those who, perhaps, share their cutural values more with Europeans. Protecting ‘real American sports’ is an analogue of protecting the good ol’ US of A against the effects of this flattening world.
Still, this internal cultural divide did not stop the USA national team from going as high as 4th in FIFA’s world rankings at one point, although they have since dropped a long way down the list, to the extent that even Scotland has once again overtaken them!
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