Hua's note: Weeks ago, the casual World Cup watcher did not need a principled reason to back the team in green over the team in blue. A friend who once studied abroad in Paraguay and had a good time? The enthusiasms of an affable, French-speaking cabbie? Backing Mexico to circuitously spite Arizona? Your grandfather's love of Pele, your other grandfather's experience in the war? Or maybe you think Kasabian >>>> Oasis. Each were noble enough reasons for the quadrennial football fan to jump online and shop for a replica jersey late at night.
And then the United States was eliminated. Things got slightly more serious. Last week, Luis Suarez became a worldwide villain and there finally emerged a team to root against: Uruguay. It probably had more to do with the victim of Suarez's handball—Ghana—than the offense itself. But the sense of injustice took the shape of a rooting interest. Anyone but Uruguay.
Me? I have no qualms with Suarez's handball but I'm rooting for the Dutch. In today's provocative guest post—and in honor of July 4th, I guess—Bethlehem Shoals further dissects the corpse that was Team U.S.A. 2010 and specifically what (if anything) the fans learned. Were casual fans merely rooting for America, or did something more profound happen? Are we as cosmopolitan as we think we are? Will more kids start calling it "football" and running around in replica Arjen Robben haircuts? Is Landon Donovan now tabloid-worthy? Will ESPN start showing Bundesliga goals with their Plays of the Week? Small victories, all.
Did I Learn Anything From Team U.S.A.?
By Bethlehem Shoals
"Rooney and Altidore jousting. Looks like physical corner bumping thick wideout."
"Rooting for England because of Rooney, Defoe, Gerrard, their fans, Michael Davies, @the_real_nash and of course WW1 + WW2."
"Wonder if ESPN executives will pull Bob Bradley aside & tell him thanks for killing their ratings in the coming 12 days"
---from the Twitter feeds of some prominent American sports voices
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—Thank you, Team USA. I'm not sure you converted a nation to soccer. But you did introduce the sport to the uniquely American value of entitlement.
If there's one thing I've learned over the last three weeks, it's that soccer may—emphasis on may—be thoroughly inscrutable to the average American sports fan. There's not enough scoring. Process matters as much as finality. Mystery and folly are part of the competitive landscape. It's not fair, but it revels in this imperfection. That's why the people's game, played in every corner of the globe, has trouble catching on stateside. It also leads to an ongoing debate of how much network coverage of the World Cup needs to acknowledge the special needs, and wants, of American newbies.
What, then, to make of this June, when soccer became—however briefly—a subject of great national interest? I think it's fair to say that, while Team USA was making their spine-tingling run, America truly keyed in on this oh-so-foreign sport. The heroics of Landon Donovan not only transcended soccer, they ventured out into the realm of pop culture—just like the Nike ad foretold (and as would happen in any other country). Granted, I live in Seattle, but the day after the Algeria match, I overheard multiple World Cup conversations at the yuppie mom coffee shop I live by, the yuppie mom hair salon I go to, and the shoe section of Nordstrom. This seems fundamentally at odds with a sport that supposedly runs counter to every cultural sensibility that unites us as a people.
However, there's a qualifier that explains it all. I don't think that Donavon and friends lead to some wide-scale revelation. We still don't get soccer. What they did manage, though, was to run an end-around on the power and mystery of the world's most popular sport. They turned the World Cup into an American story, not a soccer one.
To wit: compare the highly-addictive curiosity that was Isner-Mahut at Wimbledon. Many people with no interest in tennis watched some portion of the Longest Tennis Match Ever, for the simple fact that we were told it was historic. We didn't question why a sporting event would ever be allowed to go on this long, or ask what this told us about the relative abilities of the two men. We simply watched, and appreciated it as a freak occurrence on its own terms. It was tennis esoterica; it mattered precisely because it was unfathomable. Only a small percentage of those mesmerized by it could care less who won. Certainly, it had no bearing on Isner's next match, and even if it made him a sentimental favorite, they likely didn't make a point of tuning in to see him lose.
Team USA, on the other hand, was appropriated and fed back to us not as soccer, but as Americans kicking ass. As long as Team USA was alive, we were there to cheer them on. This thrust a terrible right and responsibility upon our most important journalistic voices (check the sample tweets above): to know more about soccer than the rest of us, even if previously, their interest in soccer had been limited.
These were instant experts, emboldened by the news cycle and the farcical occupation of "generalist". That's how, as USA soccer became a bigger and bigger story, these folks magically came into a deeper and deeper understanding of the game. I realize that, knowing almost nothing about soccer myself, I'm hardly in a position to judge others on this count. Still, I couldn't help but notice how many more writers suddenly felt compelled to weigh in on the World Cup. In a way, you can't blame them. It was the biggest story of the week, overshadowing a mainstream event like the NBA Draft, and a show like ESPN's Pardon the Interruption can't exactly ignore it. And, since it was an American story, it was automatically the province of our media figures.
Whether or not soccer made sense didn't matter. What mattered was that the USA was winning, somewhere, in something, in truly dramatic fashion. Or so we were told.
But did we learn anything? When referees did something confounding, we treated it like any other letter-of-the-law outrage. The thrill of Donovan's goals was dulled by a general inability to grasp just how unlikely they were. Soccer was translated into American, for whatever that's worth, and none of us came any closer to accepting bizarre calls, embracing mistakes, or seeing that what happened against Algeria and Slovenia was the equivalent of two no-hitters in a row. After the loss to Ghana, the New York Post (always more self-aware than you think) ran the headline "This sport is stupid anyway: USA out of World Cup". Or, to put it another way, the World Cup just went back to being the World Cup again.
The question now is what happens to those fly-by-night experts going forward. Will they continue to keep the World Cup in the news -- and posit themselves as authorities? And if so, will they still be able to keep pretending that soccer is something other than itself? Or, with America gone, are we right back where start from each year?
Suppose we table the whole issue of (mis)translation. If the style of play says something about national character, Team USA was at least relate-able in the way they played this fairly incoherent game. They were scrappy, inspired, and raw in a way that would make John Wayne proud. What exactly qualifies your average generalist to explain the Dutch to us? Maybe we began to understand how soccer speaks to nation-states, but that's not the same thing as actually tapping into the inner logic of the game. It's the difference between adolescent crushes and worrying over the rhythms of foreplay.
Maybe we didn't learn a damn thing about soccer. We did learn, though, that under the right circumstances, we could pretend that didn't matter in the least. If that's progress for soccer in America, though, maybe that's not such a good thing.
Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com and a regular contributor to AOL FanHouse. He has also written for Sports Illustrated, Slate, and The Nation. FreeDarko's first book, The Macrophenomenal Basketball Almanac: Styles, Stats and Stars in Today's Game, was published to great acclaim in 2008. Their follow-up, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be published in November.
Elsewhere on this blog: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. On the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA. Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air. Bethelem Shoals dissected American rooting politics. Last week, I discussed boredom and webcams, what it means to have "heart," and the racial politics of France's early exit. Most recently, Chris Ryan crunched the numbers on Chile's run-and-shoot attack, Pete L'Official deconstructed football's iconic "talisman," I stared deeply into the lavender-orange glow of Nike's new boots and Anmol revisited the possibilities of Pan-Africanism.