I grew up in a country where soccer has always been the sport of choice. Which is to say, I grew up in a country other than the United States.
While baseball has always been my favorite, as a kid I had far more opportunities to play soccer than any other sport. My most vivid memory of playing on a team, with a uniform, against an opponent, takes me back to my junior high days. Our private international school was playing against a cross-town juggernaut. I was on defense, minding my own business, when an opponent took a shot on goal. Alarmingly, and much to my dismay, I realized the ball was heading straight for my head, and it was doing so at a pretty good clip. So naturally I did what my instincts dictated. I put my hands up and I caught the ball. Intentional hand balls in the penalty box are frowned upon, and the red card I received sent me on a long walk off the field. We lost that match 8-0.
Needless to say, while I’ve never had very much success of my own on the field, I am nonetheless a fan of the beautiful game. The American public, though, has a complicated relationship with soccer. Tom Weir of USA Today wrote in 1993 that the country’s so-called “anti-soccer lobby” wants us to believe that “hating soccer is more American than apple pie, driving a pickup, or spending Saturday afternoons channel surfing with the remote control.” For his part, shock jock Jim Rome wasn’t mincing words when he 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. Soccer is not a sport, does not need to be on my TV, and my son will not be playing it.”
Part of the explanation for this may lie in the fact that in this country soccer has been seen as either too European or simply a sport for wealthy snobs. Regardless, it has been readily dismissed and mocked by those who consider themselves “ordinary hard-working Americans.” In most of the world, though, soccer is of course not the domain of a privileged few – it’s the nearly universal game of the masses. And for this reason one could argue that you can’t really understand the world without a basic appreciation for the role soccer plays in different cultures.
In conjunction with the beginning of the 2013/14 season of the English Premier League, I’ve just re-read How Soccer Explains The World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. In it he takes us on a fascinating journey around the world, exploring the ways in which soccer constitutes not just a sport, but a way of life in different corners of the world. In places as disparate as Iran and England, or Brazil and Serbia, Foer reveals soccer’s deep-seated political, economic, and even religious underpinnings. In some places, team owners load up their teams with foreign superstars during campaigns for the country’s presidency as a way of garnering public support. Elsewhere, centuries-old ethnic and religious divides are reenacted every weekend on the pitch. Totalitarian regimes use the sport as a tool of propaganda, only to be outsmarted and out-spirited by the citizenry who gather by the tens of thousands in stadiums where they chant what they’d never dare whispering on the street. Clearly, soccer has a way of bringing out both the best and the worst in people.
But for better and for worse, all over the world soccer is more than a game. And despite their best efforts, the U.S. anti-soccer lobby is losing the fight. Nearly a third of all U.S. households now include someone who plays the game, a figure second only to baseball. Then there are people like me, who mostly just watch, and increasingly we’re in luck. In April, NBC announced it would broadcast every single EPL match, one way or another, between network television, cable, and online streaming. The network signed its three-year, approximately $250 million contract with confidence that in this country demand for soccer is not a problem. (Fox Soccer Channel’s earlier EPL contract indicates Rupert Murdoch understands the same thing.)
Americans – citizens of a country characterized by economic and military dominance – have long been accused of being ignorant about the rest of the world. At times we’ve earned that reputation, whether by simple indifference to cultures other than our own, or by actual antagonism towards those whose difference strikes fear in our hearts. But I’m not sure very many of us want that to be the case. So here’s an idea: a good first step in learning about other cultures might be to pay attention to soccer. Try following some of the European club leagues, which are made up of players from all over the world – a microcosm of globalization in itself. Also, if anyone in your family plays soccer, there’s a good chance they’re playing alongside some children of immigrants from Latin America or elsewhere. They and their families would probably love the chance to talk about their cultural background, including the role soccer has played in it.
In the end, the fact of the matter is that our country has always borrowed from and adapted (and at times, regrettably, exploited) the best of the world’s richly diverse cultures. This has always been a nation of immigrants, and since its inception we have collectively been shaped by – and given shape to – a multiplicity of cultures. Soccer is in keeping with that great American tradition.
As Foer writes, the U.S. soccer culture is still very much in formation. Will it take on the ugly manifestations seen in some places elsewhere, further reinforcing differences? Or will it become a force that powerfully unifies us across demographic lines? It’s too soon to say, but I hope it’s the latter – and it’s in that spirit that I celebrate the beautiful game.
[Image: U.S. soccer fans at the World Cup 2010 in South Africa via The Big Picture]