Every four years, thousands of Americans put on the strangest collective theater in history.
They pack local bars, mainly Irish pubs, at ungodly hours of the day (often early in the morning). Wolfing down English breakfasts of fatty meats and eggs—lubricated with beer—these Americans crowd around TV sets to watch sporting contests from nations they have barely heard of, with players whose names they could hardly pronounce. By witnessing they’re emotions, you’d think that their lives were on the line.
Yet just as suddenly, when the tournament ends, these very same Americans, so passionate in their allegiance, return to their lives as if the last ninety minutes never happened.
In fact, for the next three years, they even ridicule the very game they enjoyed watching only recently.
Such is the dilemma that is soccer in the United States.
Why, apart from the quadrennial World Cup, are Americans apathetic about the world’s most popular sport? Is it a lack of a viable professional league in the United States? Major League Soccer, a survivor of a league if there ever was one, still has a long way to go.
Do not enough Americans play the sport? On the contrary, soccer is one of the most popular participatory sports in America’s schools and colleges.
Is American soccer talent not on par with the rest of the world? Maybe, some time ago. Yet today’s national team can go toe-to-toe with just about any other team in the world…and even win once in a while.
Unfortunately, it may still boil down to a worn-out rationale. Yes, American society as it is does not embrace soccer because the sport is simply very un-American.
Soccer, or association football, developed in Europe (especially Tuscany) in the Middle Ages as an impromptu, vicious game between hundreds of players on mud pits with a misshapen ball to kick, gouge and punch at. Its violence and chaotic nature caused many states to ban the game, and it remained a localized, “street” affair until the 1700s.
By the 18th century, football had begun a process of standardization, primarily in England. Rules were established that reduced team size, regulated scoring, and reduced violence severely. The first professional teams emerged from industrial towns in the mid-late 1800s—towns that are still soccer powers such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, etc. The English Football Association (FA) emerged soon after, and the English version of the game spread across Europe, as well as countries with large European immigrant populations such as Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico, and to a small extent the United States.
Today, almost every country in the world has its own professional soccer league, including club tournaments and a worldwide national championship, the World Cup, played every four years since 1930, except 1942 and 1946 due to World War II.
Yet the United States remains an outsider in the soccer world, largely by choice. If we look at the American sports landscape, we can see why this happened:
- Americans love games we invent ourselves (or adapt from other games) – Football was basically rugby with body armor and beer commercials. Baseball was a schoolyard English game that became tight uniforms and half-blind umpires. Of course, basketball was created in 1891 so that men can pass the time in the winter. Same with hockey…I mean, what else can you do in coldest Canada with ice skates, a stick and a frozen pond?
- Americans need games with weapons and armor – Baseball only works because players wield clubs to project a hard object a long distance. Ditto with hockey, although the increase in body armor lends itself better to point # 1. Even basketball has its weaponry; check the entourage of any NBA star through a metal detector if you don’t believe me.
- Americans require high-scoring games – This plays into both the Puritan ethic of productivity and the postwar ethos of “more is better.” Running around a field for an hour and a half better produce something—and if it is low-scoring, make sure each score counts for a lot of points. That’s how football gets by.
- Americans enjoy sports that are seasonally appropriate – this is why we tolerate, and embrace, baseball. While seemingly banal and slow, it is the perfect game for a lazy summer afternoon. The more active sports occur when the body needs to warm up, in the fall and winter. Soccer, from a spectator standpoint, makes no sense: why would we willingly stand in a stadium in sub-zero temperatures if there’s low scores and low-violence?
- Americans appreciate emotion with a purpose – again, our Puritan ancestors. It makes no sense to us that every score in a game requires a ticker-tape parade like it does in soccer (especially if the team isn’t winning.) Touchdown dances, while flamboyant, are mercifully brief, as are home run gestures and hockey high-fives.
- Americans love violence – Most Americans, in order to enjoy a sporting event, require at least a modest degree of physical aggression. Football is all aggression, punctuated by charts and diagrams to paraphrase George Will. Baseball has running, tagging, and wild pitches that can result in brain damage and bench-clearing brawls. Hockey, like football, institutionalized violence into its play—although its unofficial violence has abated as of late. Basketball, while seemingly innocuous, has the thrusting elbows, the body blocks and fierce defensive play that entice the brute in all of us.
- Americans need the possibility of death – All four of our major sports contain the possibility for violent death. In the case of football, in the early days, it was the probability, not possibility. American football evolved into its violent ways by choice: drunk, testosterone-heavy Ivy League toughs chose the physical, more violent version of football over the gentler European variety in the late 19th Century. It was so rough (fatalities were a regular occurrence) that Theodore Roosevelt ordered colleges to establish rules for football or risk its prohibition. The other sports are no slouches, either. Baseball involves the hurtling of a lethal projectile through the air. So does hockey. Hockey is even better because of weapons (sticks, possibly skates), projectiles (pucks) and protective armor. In fact, the NHL All-Star game was born because of a death from an incident on the ice. Basketball’s fatalities, by contrast, stem largely from abuses off the court—similar to soccer’s predicament (although I doubt NBA players perished through plane crashes in the Alps or crossing Colombian drug lords.)
Soccer, while so popular in the rest of the world, still lags here because our society has an inherent antipathy towards the game. In a society forged through brutality, violence, vicious capitalism and ferocious time management, soccer is the most alien of games.
Its insistence on collective play, elegance in movement, lackadaisical timekeeping, and even the irrational emotions make the game seem so…well…foreign.
Even though I grew up with soccer, some of its greatest moments were still foreign to me.
In 1982, I was playing with toys, when all of a sudden; my parents were jumping up and down, screaming and yelling. Then our landlord and his wife came into the apartment, yelling and waving an Italian flag. In all the commotion, I decided to jump up and down with them. We packed ourselves into my dad’s 1975 Ford Grenada and cruised down 18th Avenue in Brooklyn, which was then an Italian neighborhood, and saw what looked like an impromptu fair. People were dancing, laughing, and waving Italian flags.
I didn’t know what happened.
What did happen was that Italy, Dad’s mother country, just won its third World Cup in Spain in 1982. I was a kid, so forgive my obliviousness. Yet I’m not sure I wouldn’t have reacted the same way if I was older.
Will soccer be embraced by America? Eventually. Then again, it may need a radical shift in American population for soccer to become an American staple—a shift that is already taking place. Millions of immigrants from soccer-crazed Central and South America are already in this country, and single-handedly buttressing MLS’ fan base.
Yet what is to say that the next generation will eschew soccer like so many of the past? I guess we’ll have to see in another four years.