Soccer: Push-up Bra for the Cleavage in America’s Culture Wars?

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Talk to enough of the American cultural elite about the upcoming World Cup and you’re bound to hear about those ignorant xenophobes in the fly-over states and their backwards claims that soccer is un-American and a gateway to socialism.  Unlike the demographics of soccer in the rest of the world where it is the game of the masses, the bulk of soccer in the United States is confined to women’s leagues, recent immigrant enclaves or upper middle class suburban communities where births are particularly awkward as one has to accommodate the silver spoon protruding from each babe’s rear.

Despite optimistic attempts at tapping into the star power of international brands like Beckham, Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States is at best considered an emerging league and, more frequently, is the butt of jokes in the American sporting world.  This truth puts America at odds with the rest of the world, not because anyone is defending the quality of the MLS (everyone agrees it sucks), but because soccer is, by far, the most popular sport in the world.

The World Cup is not only the biggest sporting event on the planet, IT IS THE BIGGEST EVENT, end of story.  FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, estimates the viewership of the 2006 World Cup final at 715 million viewers.  Despite this kind of worldwide interest in the sport, the average American is barely aware of the World Cup and is still saying things like, “If they got rid of the goal keepers I might watch it.”  The reasons for this kind of unawareness are complex.  Access is one of them. Twenty years ago, following major European games basically required learning a second language and hunting around for obscure international newspapers.  Even today, coverage of world soccer on American sports websites is thin.  But the problem is not just access.  You also have cultural crusaders in what How Soccer Explains the World‘s Franklin Foer calls the “anti-soccer lobby”.

Says Foer: “There exists an important cleavage between the parts of the country that have adopted soccer as its pastime and the places that haven’t.  And this distinction lays bare an underrated source of American cultural cleavage: globalization.”   The message is clear: parts of the country – the blue parts on the electoral map – tend to be more susceptible to globalization and are therefore more interested in a global phenomenon like soccer. The red states cling to guns and religion and baseball and shun outside influences like soccer. Zeroing in on the anti-soccer lobby, Foer sums up the haters’ sentiment as he quotes USA Today’s Tom Weir: “Hating soccer is more American than apple pie, driving a pickup, or spending Saturday afternoons channel surfing with the remote control.”

Foer quotes prominent American conservative, former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp who, in 1986 said the following on the floor of Congress: “I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it”; that “a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist (sport).”  It seems that wild claims on the Congressional floor about creeping socialism never go out of style.

Foer also quotes radio shock jock Jim Rome who raved, “My son is not playing soccer.  I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball.”  With this kind of rabid and fundamentally maddening reasoning adding to the national conversation, it is no wonder that many stay away from soccer.

Max Bergmann for the Huffington Post: “What is so bizarre about this is how much the neocons sound like American-hating Europeans. Both dismiss American talent, American enthusiasm for soccer, and American understanding of the game. Just as neocons — and other soccer-hating sports writers of my parents generation — insist that we don’t get soccer and don’t care, European soccer writers are right there with them saying that Americans don’t get it and don’t care.”

David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange / The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, claims that American soccer fans  “tend to lean liberal”  like Holland’s national team because they are “predisposed to liking the country itself”.  He then waxes lyrical about how Holland “represents the best that bourgeois society has to offer: a genuine liberal spirit, the epitome of a certain idea of civilization.”

Soccer Against the Enemy’s Simon Kuper writes, “The game remains too good a way of understanding the world to discard.”  “In the States, being a New Fan is often a mark of being a cosmopolitan.  Soccer’s advance in the country is an idex of how American daily life is globalizing.  The two groups of Americans who are probably keenest on the game – immigrants and their direct descendants on the one hand, and the highly educated on the other – are precisely the most globalized Americans.” (He includes Obama, “the alleged West Ham fan… son of a U.S. born mother and immigrant father,” in this cross-section of America).

In The Ball is Round / A Global History of Soccer, David Goldblatt quotes British historian Eric Hobsbawm who wrote, “The twentieth century was the American century in every way but one: sport.”  Goldblatt says, “This is not exactly news to anyone, but it remains an extraordinary and under-explored anomaly; an almost unique reversal of the dominant patterns of global influence and power.”

So what should the future hold for America and soccer?  Will we continue to see the cultural cleavage grow as it is pushed up by soccer, or are there other options?  As a Swede I’ve had to nurse my own disappointment at not having Sweden qualify for this summer’s World Cup with the hope that the US will go far instead.  The US advanced to the quarter finals in what many considered the coming of age of the US team at the 2002 World Cup.  Americans that had previously not paid attention to soccer learned that the US could not only compete in the sport, but that it had a chance of dominating.   Although the 2006 World Cup was a disappointment, continued American successes, along with the forces of globalization will hopefully result in a burqa being tossed over our supple cleavage.  America has always enjoyed a new frontier to conquer.  Why not soccer?

“Soccer’s mission in the United States is not, I think, to supplement or challenge American football, baseball or basketball, but to offer a conduit to the rest of the world; a sporting antidote to the excesses of isolationism, a prism for understanding the world that the United States may currently shape but will increasingly be shaped by.”  (Goldblatt )

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Bjorn Karlman

29 thoughts on “Soccer: Push-up Bra for the Cleavage in America’s Culture Wars?”

  1. Soccer will be obsolete eventually. It will go the way of baseball. It will be replaced with basketball. F soccer, and f socialism. I am not xenophobic, but I do hate people who would consider a person xenophobic for not liking a shitty sport.

  2. BTW, that was meant to be tongue in cheek…as were most if not all the quotes you had about people commenting on soccer. I don’t really care about soccer, mostly because I know it will never catch on in the US. The people I know who like soccer are all first generation immigrants. Anyone who is at least a second generation that I know coverts over to the real sports.

    Some of the reason for a lack in interest is that our teams suck. The reason that our soccer teams suck is because all of our best athletes play other sports. Our soccer players are about our 7th tier of athletes. This is the order…basketball, football, baseball, hockey, golf, tennis, soccer. There isn’t a single American soccer player that is a household name. Until you can at least get to that point, it will never catch on. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing. Maybe you need people to like it first before you can get a great player.

    Either way, it’s never going to happen. Football and basketball have a stranglehold on the sports market in the US. Nothing can break that. Even a superior sport would have a tough time breaking the sports duopoly in America, but an inferior sport has no chance.

  3. I’m surprised David ranked basketball above football in his American sports hierarchy. I thought football had become the pinnacle of American sports – but maybe that’s just because I pay more attention to football.

    I definitely agree with David’s thoughts about why soccer isn’t catching on. I don’t see what is intrinsically socialist about soccer anymore than what is intrinsically democratic about baseball, except that historically the former has been played by socialists.

    It seems to me that the reason soccer hadn’t caught on much here is that – and I mean this in the most non-xenophobic way possible – our sports are better (what can I say, I’m hopeless American Exceptionalist). Football has a constant build up to nail biting action in the “Red Zone”. Basketball has the fast-paced constant can’t-look-away kind of action where something exciting is always happening. Baseball is full of suspense. Soccer just seems like a constant back-and-forth with the rare goal here in there. It’s like Hockey, only that’s a lot cooler because, well, it’s on ice.

    Of course I’ve never really given soccer a chance. I wasn’t a huge football fan until my Steeler fanatic Pittsbergese wife and in-laws sucked me in. Maybe if I gave soccer a chance I could like it, but I don’t feel the need, there is more than enough excitement in American sports – and I think most Americans feel the same way.

    Globalists think that America needs to take up soccer (along with the metric system and such) in order to get in line with the rest of the world. But getting in line with the rest of the world is not what America is all about. Sure it’s good if we can all get along, but we want to do our own thing and let the rest of the world do theirs (unless of course, their “thing” happens to be exporting terror or building nukes, but that’s another issue). America is what it is, you can take it or leave it, it’s a free country.

  4. I believe a big reason why soccer has not caught on in the US is because it does not have the convenient pauses and breaks baseball, football and basketball do. These breaks are crucial for advertisements that keep the major networks going. When soccer is televised, an announcement is made that this 30 minutes is brought to you by Coke! No fun or sex = terrible commercial.

    Soccer is a great sport and requires an incredible amount of athleticism. These guys are constantly running for hours and get very few breaks. Since most Americans have conditioned ADD, they need their breaks from viewing just as the corporate world needs those breaks to get us to buy their crap and junk food.

    Go Germany!

  5. this american is not a sports fan at all, but if i was, i’d be watching rugby, soccer and/or basketball (in no particular order). sports = action. baseball and american football are just too darn slow.

  6. I think we should get you your own radio show… seriously, you’d be good:) But I do agree with a critique of the snotty cultural elite… I don’t mind cosmopolitan but it is easy to cross the line to aloof and annoying.

  7. Well, I would say Landon Donovan of Galaxy/US national team fame may be getting close to the kind of home-grown star power that we need. US soccer got a good boost off of the 2002 World Cup success.. I mean there has been a lot more respect for it internationally and more people paying attention at home… I am sure it will take decades but the US is not immune to globalization and the combination of international popularity and struggles like the strikes like those that paralyzed professional baseball in the mid 90s, may actually bring a shift towards soccer… especially as it becomes increasingly lucrative to do so…

  8. Micah, I like your thoughts and I think it is precisely because America is a free country and because it probably is the country that is most subjected to the forces of globalization, that I think soccer will catch on here. Soccer has made comparatively huge headway in the last several years and I think this kind of momentum is only growing. It is not about giving up what is intrinsically American, it is more about harnessing American love of competition and sports excellence, and fusing it to a truly world sport. The other sports may seem better to the national psyche but nothing has caught on the way soccer has on a worldwide scale.

    For some of the facts on growth/profitability of American soccer, check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_League_Soccer

    modest growth but fairly consistent since 2002…

  9. Yeah, formatting soccer programing for American mass consumption is going to be a challenge for sure but as the sport becomes more lucrative, I am sure that US TV market will get better at cashing on on it. I mean the size of the industry is absolutely ridiculous worldwide..

    And… good to know where you stand! I’m hoping for wins for the US, England and Argentina… South Korea would be my top Asian pick..

  10. Yeah, that’s where I am. I have been to so many Dodger games and been completely bored… I brought a British friend once and he was so bored he started filming the fans in the “fight stands”. Soccer will take some time to take off in the national imagination but once it does I think it will be pretty unstoppable.

  11. I’ve always been a Germany fan… it’s been a way for me to stay connected to my heritage. Another team I like is the Socceroos from Australia. Talk about an underdog with heart! They were so close in ’06. The only goal scored in their game against Italy was in the 3rd minute of the two minutes added to the half D:{

  12. I think if you grow up playing baseball you learn to appreciate it more. I always like watching the pitcher and trying to guess what he’s going to throw. But I agree with Jennifer, rugby and soccer are much more fast pace and exciting. Though I must admit, my favorite part of rugby is watching the NZ All-Blacks do the Haka! Ka mate! Ka mate! Ka ora! Ka ora!

  13. Let’s be clear about something: America’s philosophy of soccer is upside down. We believe grassroots soccer as it currently stands and MLS are the keys to victory. But what results has this approach produced? A few close encounters, yes. Trophies, no.

    Team USA will have a fair shot only when they bring in a foreign coach–preferably a European. A number of European, Asian and African national teams have followed this model and achieved considerable success. England have had a string of foreign coaches (sorry, but Sven and Fabio are not English names), and although the Three Lions has nothing to show for it (yet) it would be foolish to overlook the influence these coaches have had on the technical ability and character of the squad. Personally, I think ex-German national coach Jurgen Klinsmann would make a great fit at Team USA, as he already speaks perfect English, is married to a Chinese-American and lives in LA. His coaching credentials are solid, too.

    When I watch Team USA play, I don’t get the idea that they fully understand the strategy nor possess the technical skills to compete at the top tier. Strategy and technique are two areas where a seasoned European coach could have significant influence. But, the whole dilemma of raising the bar across the board is not something that a foreign coach–alone–can solve. Instead, American players need to be exposed on an increasing level to the intense competition, pressure, and skill of the top European leagues–namely the Premiership (England), Serie A (Italy), Erdivisie (Holland), La Ligue (France), Bundesliga (Germany) and La Liga (Spain). Only when at least half of the starting line-up of Team USA is comprised of players who hold down a starting position in any of these leagues will America have a shot at bringing home the World Cup.

    Essentially, the answer is not domestic, but foreign. And this fact alone–the idea that the solution is abroad–is a difficult one for Americans to digest since we’re so accustomed to being World Champions in just about everything BUT the topic under discussion. Success does not rest in home-grown American soccer or the MLS, it is in Americans plying their trade abroad at the highest levels of competition in positions OTHER than goalkeeper (where, by the way, Americans have already left their mark) and importing this knowledge back to the United States where it can be put to use at the grass-roots level. Americans have this silly notion that we’ll somehow win the Big One starting from the bottom up, yet we forget exactly how far behind we actually are.

    Yes, Team USA has improved, but not to the extent that we can consider ourselves genuine contenders. When we win, it usually come as a result of a moment of individual brilliance, set pieces, or blunders on the part of the other side. This leads me to the conclusion that we need an outsider who–strategically and technically–can change things from the top down, and we need at least half of the players on Team USA to hold down starting positions on respectable teams abroad. Then, and only then, will we win, save Divine Intervention, or, as the Argentines call it, the “hand of God”.

  14. My advice to you is to give soccer a real chance before you place it in the “lesser” or “other” category. Watch it for once, read about it, inform yourself. The World Cup is a great place to start your soccer education, and there’s nothing wrong with cheering on Team USA, although I suggest that you take it a step further and pick a few other teams–one from each continent, or from each group is one way to do it–and follow them from the blast of the first whistle to the moment when they either get dumped out of the tournament or win it big.

    Put aside for a moment your American exceptionalist mindset; the World Cup is a benign sporting event, not a liberal political rally. No need to fear the wide world of soccer, or politicize it unnecessarily. Inevitably, you’re left with two choices coming up here on June 11: you can either 1) indulge in your American exceptionalist tendencies while watching American football highlight reels and off-season sports talk-shows or 2) you can toss it and join in the fun.

    By the way, I’m a huge Dallas Cowboys fan–that’s America’s Team, by the way. But when I’m not cheering on the Dallas Cowboys, I find the time to follow AC Milan, FC Chelsea, the Italian national team and, of course, Team USA.

  15. US, Italy and a bit of Germany for me, but, deep down, I’m rooting for any one of the African teams. I’d like to see them go far this World Cup. They’ve got remarkable individual talent but little organization. A World Cup trophy would be a coup for the whole continent, though. Can’t say that I’m a big fan of South Korea, though…

  16. Football owns America, but I do think the best athletes are in basketball. I could be wrong, but they get paid more than football players and you are not as exposed to career ending injuries. From everything I know, the NFL makes more money and is more popular than the NBA.

  17. In basketball there are a lot of substitutions, which means a “starter” rarely stays on the court for the entire game. For example, Kobe Bryant was on and off the court the other night against Boston. While that doesn’t make him any less of an athlete, it just means he gets to take a breather every once in a while. In soccer there are only three substitutions, which means that starters, unless they perform terribly or lose it mentally, will often stay on the pitch for periods of up to +80 minutes, covering close to a half-marathon in the process. There are also no time-outs. In soccer they talk about something called “match fitness”, which is the near equivalent of being able to, on command, run a marathon. American football, on the other hand, is start-stop to the point of deathly boredom. I mean, I love American football, but doesn’t anyone else think it not the least bit odd that America is the only country that follows/plays the sport? Nobody else cares about the sport because it’s simply yawn-inducing. It’s an acquired taste, something you have to grow up with to fully appreciate. The start-stop of American football is unbearable to many foreigners, who are accustomed to the flow of soccer and the crunching, helmet-less tackles in rugby. In fact, rugby fans the world around laugh at the fact that American footballers actually wear…pads. Burly men in pads.

  18. You make a really good point about harnessing the American love of competition. The biggest attraction to soccer that I see, as a competitive American is want to be able to beat the rest of the world at it. That’s one thing soccer has that the rest of American sports don’t; a chance to take on the world – that’s something that Americans could really get behind.

    (Still, though, I think it would be even better to get the rest of the world playing American sports because – as objectively as possible – I really think they are slightly better.)

  19. I’ve always thought that Football’s start/stop format was one of it’s strengths, entertainment-wise. It sets it up so that every play is huge, you’re always on the edge of your seat to see if they can get the down. Having short-term goals in the game as well as long term goals makes it more exciting rather than boring, to me. If that wasn’t there, as in soccer, it wouldn’t matter what was going on in the game until they get close to the goal line.

    I don’t see other countries looking down on football either, it seems like every year we are adding a game in England or Canada. I always thought the reason that football hasn’t caught on over sees is just the huge cost of starting up a new sporting franchise and that they haven’t really been exposed to it.

    Certainly soccer players are generally more fit than football players, though, I won’t argue there. Football players are probably the most specialized athletes in any major sport, they have to be very good at doing the main thing that their position requires, but they don’t have to necessarily run all over the field.

  20. If I had the time I might give soccer a try, but really football is probably enough for me. I’m not that big of sports person to begin with, it would only take away from my more creative pursuits.

    I absolutely agree with you that soccer doesn’t have to be politicized. Honestly I don’t understand why it is. What does soccer have to do with socialism? As someone with generally Right-wing views I don’t see soccer as a political threat. It seems to me that it’s people on the Left who want to make soccer a political issue by holding it up as yet another instance where Americans are out of touch with the rest of the world. I just don’t see anything wrong with us having our sport and them having theirs, or with Americans taking on soccer to the detriment of “American sports”, or with American sports being taken up overseas – I say let people play what they want to play and don’t criticize us for our choices either way.

    And by the way, I also think I need to clarify what I mean by American Exceptionalism. It seems like term is often taken by liberals to mean “xenophobic”, something that we must “put aside” in order to get along with the rest of the world. To most conservatives it simply means that we think America is the greatest country in the world. It’s not that we have something against all the other countries, but we just think there’s a reason that people seeking greater opportunities still come here from all around the world.

  21. Ehren, I bow to your superior knowledge of the sport. I was in LA for yesterday’s USA v England and it made my heart glad when I got yelled at by an American for getting in the way of his line-of-sight as the game was ending. I am hoping that despite the considerable handicaps that you detail, the US can win enough on heart and hustle, and really draw some domestic passion for the game this time around…

  22. Glad we agree on the love of competition… and declaring one sport better than the next is obviously going to get mired in impossible bias… I would stick by soccer…. but basketball has quite the international following too… just not quite soccer’s visceral, violent passion fest

  23. In basketball there are a lot of substitutions, which means a “starter” rarely stays on the court for the entire game. For example, Kobe Bryant was on and off the court the other night against Boston. While that doesn’t make him any less of an athlete, it just means he gets to take a breather every once in a while. In soccer there are only three substitutions, which means that starters, unless they perform terribly or lose it mentally, will often stay on the pitch for periods of up to +80 minutes, covering close to a half-marathon in the process. There are also no time-outs. In soccer they talk about something called “match fitness”, which is the near equivalent of being able to, on command, run a marathon. American football, on the other hand, is start-stop to the point of deathly boredom. I mean, I love American football, but doesn’t anyone else think it not the least bit odd that America is the only country that follows/plays the sport? Nobody else cares about the sport because it’s simply yawn-inducing. It’s an acquired taste, something you have to grow up with to fully appreciate. The start-stop of American football is unbearable to many foreigners, who are accustomed to the flow of soccer and the crunching, helmet-less tackles in rugby. In fact, rugby fans the world around laugh at the fact that American footballers actually wear…pads. Burly men in pads.
    +1

  24. The never-ending “my sport is better than yours”… Is a futile argument by people who are not secure enough in their own individuality. It’s like arguing pop-music … it’s a matter of taste.

    To say that one is better than another is beyond ignorant. Sure, 20 guys chasing a ball may not be a way to go for American psyche, but neither is cricket. It means NOTHING.

    On top of that, attributing the popularity of the Soccer as some kind of indicator of superiority of the sport… likewise does not cut it for me. I grew up playing soccer, and I grew up with friends of my dad yelling from the top of their lungs and throwing beer cups at the loosing team. Soccer is not about athleticism or performance. You don’t get to appreciate the athleticism or performance unless you get in there and run around or jump around or whatever it is for a while.

    Sports, just like any form of commercial entertainer is a way of pandering to escapist human psyche. I got my education for free because my school needed a way to attract more students to demonstrate the “superiority” and “school spirit” in some other way than offering excellent academic programs.

    While out there, for me it was all about achievement and proving myself. Perhaps overcoming failures and pushing the limits of my body. For everyone else in the arena it was a night in the movies. They get to sympathize with the “actors”, but that’s about it. It’s an escape.

    No matter what kind of sport it is… be it basketball, football, soccer, or mosh pit at the concert… it’s all built for people who need to get away from their lives to vicariously experience greatness, and feel some sort of importance by associating themselves with “the winning team” and fill their heads with info useful enough to strike an inch deep conversation with somebody else.

    The funny thing is seeing all of these people take it seriously. It’s hilarious as though something actually is on the line for these people.

    There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a game. I loved these NBA series. But, for crying out loud. Stop making these things larger than life. It’s a way for people to unplug and create yet another celebrity culture that will sell you yet another product that you don’t really need.

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