World Cup: On Rooting for America

Hua's note: We will leave the tactical analysis to our brilliant colleagues at Zonal Marking. But in the aftermath of the United States' disappointing 2-2 draw with Slovenia, you can already predict the headlines: praise for the Americans' plucky guts, their never-say-die attitude, their intestinal fortitude when the odds were against them, their heroically brave comeback from a near-insurmountable deficit, that third goal we were unjustly denied. Did I say we? It's hard not to get swept up in these things, even when you see the narratives for what they are, blah blah blah something about nationalism etc etc "way of life" blah blah. We probably shouldn't have been two goals down to begin with.

For some WC2010 watchers, perhaps rooting for America-as-nation might lapse into a more nuanced appreciation for the squad or sport itself. And if this happens, then they will be kilometers ahead of most American sports writers. Piotr passed on this great post on the "soccer wars" by Alex Massie over at The New Republic's "Goal Post" blog, wherein Massie essentially argues that soccer is and will continue to remain a fixture in American sports. One of the sole reasons this idea is ever contestable is because the worst among pundits insist on approaching soccer using the examples, metrics and vernacular of professional basketball or football. Or, in the most egregious cases, assuming that the ideal athletic frame here is a universally-transferable metric:

Bill Simmons writes that Rajon Rondo would be a great soccer player too:

Can you think of a better position for a catlike 6-3 freakishly athletic guy with oversized hands than soccer goalie? I mean, other than point guard? Why do I feel as if we could teach Rondo the position in 10 days and he would instantly become the best goalie in the world? 

Why does Bill Simmons "feel" that? Because he's an idiot.


On this note cross-sports note, we continue today with Bethlehem Shoals of the Free Darko collective, renowned for his diamond-sharp analysis of the NBA and its metanarratives. Here, Shoals took a break from their upcoming book to think aloud about the politics of soccer fandom.

Cuppin' It: An (American) Outsider View of (USA) Soccer
By Bethlehem Shoals

SEATTLE, Washington—I invented "liberated fandom." Okay, I wasn't the first person to reject the primacy of the home team. Sometimes, there's no team nearby, or the lure of front-running proves too strong to resist. But I gave it a name (over a thousand Google hits, which came as news to me), made it the basis of a blog and two books, and just generally use it as an ideological building block. Home teams, roots, geography, loyalty...all of these are secondary to questions of taste, style, and individual players. Oh, and nothing in sports disgusts me quite like the ignorant, bloodthirsty homer. I've been told I just don't get fandom, or don't know what it means to suffer since I'm free to change allegiances at any time. I don't feel like I'm missing out.

Before we go any further, I should also mention that I'm a soccer novice. I only ever watch the World Cup, and in the past, pretty much only Brazil. This time around, I've decided to take the plunge, at least as much as anyone who barely grasps the strategy in soccer can. I am highly susceptible to hype and a sucker for history. I like the idea of soccer as a proxy for culture, foreign policy, indigenous cuisine, and porn; other sports have to settle for metaphor or rough equivalencies. Soccer doesn't just help us understand the world, it's a part of it. Nationalism and essentialism are still incredibly popular to mankind. Here, as best as I can tell, they are enacted, empowered, and at the same time kept from jumping the fence. I think.

I've had friends try to convert me for years; little did they know, all they had to do was send my wife across the country for the summer.

Previously, every time someone would try and tell me that soccer and basketball had lots in common, I'd recoil. I blame this country for keeping me away from the game. No, I'm not talking about its longstanding neglect of the sport all other nations call home. I hate the way soccer has become the new baseball—the sport for those too smart or cultured to otherwise bother with athletics. It's sophisticated, deep, and is to American football what very special people are to the rest of America. I live in Seattle; I encounter this all the time, like whenever I mention that I write about sports for a living. Soccer is for brown people and expats, but also snobby white people or outsiders who have plenty of disdain for, say, the NBA. It's not just about differentiating one's self from mainstream American culture, but being freed up from national identity altogether. Ahead, all sorts of expat fantasies and Third World exoticism await.

I know that soccer was supposed to catch on here years ago as a result of all the little kids running around, and the popularity of the term "soccer mom." Except that didn't happen. The rise in numbers here comes out of the aforementioned coalition, one that pretty well mirrors the Democratic party's wish-list. These are the same folks accused by the right of not being sufficiently patriotic, and dangerously international. The NFL is the sport of the real Americans, right down to its chauvinistic insistence that the word "football" belongs to their, much younger, sport, and that the rest of the world is out of line. I'm not saying that some soccer fans are into the sport as a political act. But stateside, it's a pretty reliable indicator of political leanings, or at least demographics. Soccer is progressive, free, and open to new things. There's a whole world of possibilities: traditions to learn, perspectives and lore to assimilate, and none of them with a claim on the American fan. Yes, I'm aware of the existence of the Sounders. I also know a bar here that prides itself on being able to get semi-professional matches from all across the Continent.

This behavior is picture-perfect "liberated fandom", the polar opposite of essentialism and nationalism. And yet part of what makes soccer so heady is just how, well, conservative it is. Without these -isms, it loses its cultural and historical gravity. The core values of the World Cup are, more or less, ancient. How else could you account for a sporting event in which rivalries are defined by centuries-old wars, or the legacy of colonialism? America is horrendous at this stuff. All we really understood was the Cold War, and that was decidedly present-tense, even present in daily life. Once that Berlin Wall fell, we lost our natural rivals. Meanwhile, Great Britain understands full well the irony of "special relationship." It's not all that different from college or pro football, except that the sport isn't itself doesn't simulate a military campaign. When other countries do it, it's the new imported beer or ethnic restaurant. As all other countries use the World Cup as a chance to flex their jingoistic love-muscle like never before, America sees soccer as a refuge from its own shameful government actions. It's no coincidence that soccer gained added cachet during the Bush years.

I have been led to believe over the last few weeks that Americans don't like to root for the American team in the World Cup. To me, though, these attempts at liberated fandom are the strangest aspect of this kind of American soccer fandom: rooting for other countries, when to do so is akin to an act of citizenship. Or, if you want to get creative, treason. No one from, say, Uruguay, would consider an American fan of their team as engaged in the same activity as they are. We're hearing a lot that Africans will root for whatever African team picks up. That's a bit different; that's a continent used to being lumped together, scorned by the rest of the world, and collectively having something to prove. Spain doesn't care if I'm pulling for them. Only North Korea hires actors to impersonate fans.

I think there's an answer, though. American soccer is different than America writ large. Here, soccer stands for, paradoxically, an anti-essentialist essentialism, a nationalism open to international possibilities. It is, in short, the sports equivalent of the left. Is there a such thing as the American left? Sure. To that extent, cheering for America in soccer isn't an evil imperial gesture, it's proposing a different kind of America—maybe even a different kind of world. In the World Cup, it's the one national rooting interest that, by virtue of the sport's place in America, is inherently progressive. It's one of the few forms of patriotism that doesn't pose problems, or at least make for strange bedfellows. Maybe American soccer fans just want to be tourists, and pick and choose what other countries catch their fancy. The Old World and Third World are hard to shake. But if there's a fork in road here, the other way offers a genuinely fresh (and logical) alternative. American soccer is uniquely poised to say something powerful about where the planet is headed. Sure, it's not as fun as tribalism and grudges. Soccer, though, is supposed to be for people who are too good for that. Isn't it?

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of 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. And yesterday, Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air.