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.
Summer Reading for Teachers: Brilliant Orange
Now that we know the two finalists for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, let’s get to know one of them a little better.
Of the two (Spain being the other), the Netherlands is probably less known to many Americans, even though our biggest city claims the Dutch as their colonial forebearers. So it was a thrill to return to my bookshelf and dust off an old gem from my soccer books.
Soccer literature has really come into its own as of late. A good shelf should include works by Simon Kuper (Football Against the Enemy, Soccernomics, Ajax, the Dutch, the War), Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, Joe McGinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, and of course Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.
For my money, few books discuss Dutch football, nor the Dutch themselves, better than Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner. His 2001 masterpiece about the emergence of Dutch soccer still rings true today, and is required reading for any real fan of the Oranje.
In the postwar period, the Netherlands developed a unique brand of soccer that spread throughout Europe and the world from the 1970s through the 1990s. Dubbed “Total Football”, Dutch soccer was a strange and exciting blend of crisp teamwork and inventive formations. It required players to leave their comfort zones and play at positions as the game required: halfbacks shot forward, strikers fell back to defensive play. It was teamwork and improvisation, stability and movement, stasis and fluidity—depending on the situation.
Total Football was, according to Winner, a window of postwar Dutch society; a society which struggled to maintain its identity in the face of the rapid social changes of the 1960s. Changing mores and a youth culture aching to shake off the violent past collided with a conservative Dutch base that sought stability—sometimes through nefarious means, as exemplified by Dutch cooperation during the Nazi occupation of the 1940s.
Yet I would argue that it is more than that. Total Football is a reflection of the dichotomy that has defined the Dutch character since the founding of the Republic in the late 16th Century. To many Americans, the Netherlands is windmills, wooden shoes, booze, sex and drugs: a kind of European Tijuana, where anything goes. In fact, Dutch identity is not defined by freedom, at least not entirely. Rather, the struggle between freedom and order has permeated throughout Dutch history, as is clearly evidenced through their revolutionary brand of soccer.
Take, for example, the Dutch attitude toward marijuana and prostitution. If you asked the Dutch government, they’d probably tell you that they wished both these vices would go away. Yet if they were both criminalized, it would lead to a rapid decline in social stability. People want their vices, and will go through whatever it takes to get it: you try prying a pothead away from the mouth of a bong. So the sensible, orderly thing is to not criminalize it, at least not completely. Both pot and sex are heavily taxed and regulated by the state, so that both vices, rather than being agents of disorder, are in fact folded into the greater tidiness of Dutch society.
The need for a sensible consensus has driven the Netherlands for over four centuries. It became a beacon of “tolerance” as waves of refugees, religious dissenters, Jews and political dissidents made the Dutch republic a safe haven and strengthened their trade empire of the 1600s (Note I said “tolerance”, not “acceptance.” These people were accepted out of necessity, not entirely out of kindness.) This also showed up in Holland’s most famous colony, a ramshackle settlement on the Atlantic seaboard that would eventually become New York City.
This same struggle of order and individual expression shined through the 1970s, as Dutch footballers dominated the sport. For someone like me, who grew up on soccer, Brilliant Orange is a roller-coaster of both legendary and familiar names. Names my Dad recognized in the 1970s—Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol, Van Hanegem—were joined in the 1980s and 1990s by players all too familiar to me—Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten and Bergkamp.
All of these players experienced incredible success: Ajax of Amsterdam won three European Cups in a row (1971, 1972, 1973), and the national team won the 1988 European championship as well as reach three World Cup finals (1974, 1978, 2010). Yet the same turbulent society that embraced success also had to cope with defeat, often catastrophic defeat. For all their success, the Dutch could never win the big trophy, which is also displayed in a distinctly Dutch way: a fatalism that hints that at a return to order.
It’s an interesting thought: is it too disorderly, too chaotic, too non-Dutch for the Netherlands to be world champions?
Today’s Dutch players (Sneijder, Robben, Van Bronckhorst, etc.) as well as fans worldwide will have to contemplate that on Sunday afternoon. In the meantime, Brilliant Orange offers an incredible glimpse at a unique team, a unique sport, and the bewilderingly unique people that spawned it.
Who am I rooting for? Let’s just say I’m wearing an orange shirt that day.
Filed under Uncategorized
Tagged as 1974 World Cup, 1978 World Cup, 1988 European Championship, 2010 World Cup, Ajax, Arjen Robben, Bergkamp, Brilliant Orange, Commentary, Communications, Cruyff, Cultural Literacy, current events, Curriculum, David Winner, Dutch history, Education, Educational leadership, European history, FIFA, Football, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Gullit, History, Holland, Media, Neeskens, Nick Hornby, Opinion, Rijkaard, Simon Kuper, Soccer, Soccer Literature, Social studies, Sports, Sports writing, television, The Netherlands, Total football, Van basten, Van Hanegem, Wesley Sneijder, World Cup, World History