Can the World Cup Change How Americans See Soccer?

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What's become unbearable about soccer over the last five or ten years in this country is what it's come to represent. In many parts of the world, it was always more than a game, linked inextricably with politics, class, religion, and locale. But some educated American elites, oblivious for so long to soccer and the people who followed it (Latinos, West Indians, recent European immigrants), have seemingly out of the blue latched on to the sport's rich subtexts and have claimed it as their own.

It began in 2004 with Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains The World (similar to Soccer Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper, one the smartest writers on the game whose book wasn't widely read in this country when it came out in 1994). This trend continued two years later with the anthology The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, which included literary in-crowders from The New Yorker, Granta, and McSweeney's.

Of course, novelists, poets, artists, and intellectuals are welcomed to write about and enjoy soccer, as they do in other countries. The truly egalitarian—not the fashionably egalitarian—always understood that soccer was the game of the masses. Albert Camus was a fan, Karol Wojtyla played, and his countryman, the writer Ryszard Kapuscinski loved the sport, as I found out when I met him a few years before he died. (We spent the first ten minutes talking about Polish soccer stars Grzegorz Lato and Zbigniew Boniek before discussing Africa.) In fact, one of the great writerly books on soccer is Uruguayan intellectual Eduardo Galeano's Soccer In Sun and Shadow. (It was Galeano's brilliant book Open Veins of Latin America that Hugo Chavez handed to President Barack Obama—and which caused such a stir.)

But here, the culture of soccer has become a badge of liberal cosmopolitanism. When you consider the timing of this trend, perhaps the adoption of soccer was a rejection of Bush/Cheney 2000s provincialism. If Karl Rove kept the I-4 corridor Nascar red in 2004, why then young Beltway wonks, Brooklyn MFA candidates, and Bread Loaf novelists, instead of moving to Europe (like they said they would) would adopt the red of Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal. Fine, but for me, soccer was always about inclusiveness; I'd kick a ball with anyone, talk about it with anyone. I was only too glad. With these "thinking fans"—or nouveau fans, as I like to call them—it feels exclusive, a networking tool for the elite. They talk over you. And their assessments on the game are bullying and simplistic, hardly the qualities of the secure intellectual or artist. Nuance, and generosity, seem lost in their interpretations.

The beautiful game? Sure, sometimes. And other times soccer is tedious, brutal, and ugly. No one group is purer in this game than any the other. There are no saints in soccer. (Yes, even Barcelona players as much as I admire them—UNICEF, not a corporate logo, is inscribed across their jersey—playact to deceive the referee, as we saw recently in the Champions League semifinal.) Soccer's about love, but hate, too. An occasional upchuck of bile can be good for the system. So can laughter. Soccer's serious but shouldn't be immune to send-up, either.

On the one hand, marketeers, consulting firms, and P.R.-specialists maintain that soccer still isn't a major sport in this country. On the other, the thinking fans believe it's their thing, their sporting cosa nostra. I'm scratching my head. How did it get to this?

Still, there's hope. During this World Cup, I know there will be kids like me from the Bronx—a soccer wasteland in 1980s; a wasteland period, to some—watching this strange new game and devouring it. Where is Valladolid? Vigo? Bilbao? Cameroon? El Salvador? Algeria? Why does Algeria wear green, Italy blue? Why is it Glasgow Celtic and not the Celtics? Where's this team Flamengo? Or Corinthians? Why is that skinny man with the beard named Socrates?

They'll be some curious 14-year-old or 12-year-old or 10-year-old (kids seem so much smarter these days) and maybe they'll start by bugging their parents for a Kaizer Chiefs jersey. Then, better still, they'll get the atlas off the shelf, or more likely online, and trace their finger on the computer screen and look for Polokwane and Bloemfontein and Tshwane. Maybe it will take them to the photography of David Goldblatt or to the music of Abdullah Ibrahim (no room for him at the concert last night I suppose), or of the late Lion of Soweto himself, Mahlathini. (Don't laugh, my first encounter with Joan Miro and Antoni Tapies were from 1982 World Cup posters.) Maybe they'll learn that the "word," long ago, was "Johannesburg!"

And they'll ask questions—why is this stadium named for Peter Mokaba, that one for Moses Mabhida, and who is Nelson Mandela? And they'll learn and they'll be obsessed for life.

And that makes me do one thing: smile. Now, may the games begin.

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Michael J. Agovino is author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City (HarperCollins, 2008). He will be blogging for TheAtlantic.com during the World Cup.

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