Why Americans Shouldn't Give Up on Soccer


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If you love America and feel ambivalent about soccer, you are not alone. For the many millions in the United States who have been ignoring the imported sport since the days of the ill-fated North American Soccer League, the World Cup approximates a blind date. Middling thrills (the U.S. run to the quarterfinals in 2002) notwithstanding, everyone knows it's probably not going to work out. But as an AT&T ad in heavy rotation during this year's tournament notes, "every second makes a difference" in discovering a latent, lifelong love.

Heading into the third and possibly final U.S. appearance in the 2010 tournament—today's match against Algeria—some Americans are ready to send the sport straight to voicemail. U.S. viewership on ABC, ESPN, and Univision has been at its highest level since the cup came to America in 1994. But the contests with Britain and, six days later, Slovenia, openly defied those principles we find most basically American. To a nation steeped in the triumphalism of wealth and might, and which leveraged the concept of "voting people off" into a global industry, a tie is alien—or at least unsatisfying. The draw with England offended our results-oriented, can-do culture (though the New York Post grasped the subtext of Britain's non-thrashing, running the headline "U.S. Wins 1-1").

The Slovenian game provoked even more invective—again, because the result felt so un-American. Fans who wrote off the U.S. team—down 0-2 at the half—were pleasantly surprised by the daring comeback capped by strikes from Landon Donovan and Tom Bradley. But when Maurice Edu's 89th minute goal was called back by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, the injustice was too much for the country to bear. "Games like this are why we won't join the ICC!" wrote Daniel Foster in the National Review. When Andrew Das penned a tepid defense of the referee for the New York Times, one commenter responded with outrage: ''The US was robbed of perhaps its greatest soccer moment ever." Across the land, non Slovenian-Americans were indivisible (in anger), enjoying liberty—but not justice—for all.

Unlike the decades-long achievement gap that soured U.S. fans in the past, the violation of these precious values has threatened our flirtation with football fandom. Some watchers, notably Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo, have suggested interventions to rival Minority Report: Instant replays on demand. In-shoe GPS technology to catch offside play. Tape the match. Yank the ref. Plug the damn hole. This, too, is quintessentially American, and recalls earlier kerfuffle following the umpire error that wrecked Armando Galarraga's perfect baseball game. We shouldn't be faulted for predictable cries of distress and (often prudent) calls for more regulation. In this case, however, they're obstructing our view of the madcap unpredictability that makes soccer soccer.

Despite being superficially off-putting, the U.S. games so far were actually the perfect introduction to the inherent cruelties of the sport. For those irked that Coulibaly blew a call, consider the fortuitous bumbling of Robert Greene just a few days prior. Recall that the foul that birthed Edu's strike was dubiously judged, as many are. Indeed, the thweet of a whistle may contain joy or pain, but always, for a moment, suspense—which remains the essential pleasure of football. As this year's upset-laden tournament shows, fortunes change. Nothing is guaranteed. In some cases, as with the sorry French team that only qualified via handball, karmic retribution arrived, months later. What's more, crossbar dings or winning saves are often just as exciting as balls at the back of the net. I've watched all three 0-0 draws in the 2010 Cup, and found them thrilling even without the cheers that follow victory. To the true fan, groans and gasps are as good as goals.

So Americans tuning in for the match against Algeria should season their French fries and beer with a certain amount of fatalism. Journalist Etgar Keret put it well in The New Republic: "life is an ongoing, uncoordinated, anguished effort to transcend our trivial existence, an effort that, if we're lucky, might lead to one brilliant move by Messi, Kaka, or some other dribbling magician." The U.S. fan can be cheered that after Friday's plucky performance, the magician may turn out to be an American after all.

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Dayo Olopade is a reporter for The Daily Beast in Washington, and a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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