How to Cheer for America
When I watch the World Cup, I’m celebrating not what this country is, but what it can be.
Updated at 12:36 p.m. ET on November 18, 2022
For more about the 2022 World Cup, sign up here for The Great Game, a newsletter about how soccer explains the world.
When I was 6, my mother missed the deadline to register me for the Pop Warner football league. She needed something that would get me to do a lot of running outside the house, so that I didn’t do as much running inside of the house. A colleague suggested soccer. It wasn’t a sport my mom had considered: Not many Black kids in Louisiana played soccer in 1994.
I started playing in a recreational league at our local park, practicing twice a week with a team coached by two of my teammates’ dads, men who were learning the contours of the game alongside us, but who insisted that the most important thing was enjoying ourselves.
By the time I was 9, I was completely enamored. That summer, the World Cup was held in France, and games were played each day for weeks. My parents wanted to get more acquainted with the world’s most popular sport. As I remember it, though, they didn’t actually sit down and watch many of the games. It was more like they thought we might all learn about the sport through osmosis, as it played in the background and they moved about the house making lunches and washing dishes. At first, if I’m honest, I didn’t watch much either. I didn’t have the attention span to sit through an entire soccer match on television, a sport whose pacing was so different from the American football that usually played on the television in our house.
But on occasion, seeking a reprieve from the summer heat and humidity outside, and drawn to the screen by the fervor with which the commentators were discussing the games, I did sit down and watch. And one day, holding a grilled-cheese sandwich wrapped in a paper towel, I saw a moment unfold on-screen that would stay with me forever.
This was South Africa’s first time qualifying for the World Cup. The team, majority-Black and a hopeful symbol of the country’s post-apartheid future, was by no means a pushover. On June 12 they played France at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. France had some of the best players on the planet. One was a 20-year-old named Thierry Henry.
What you should understand about Henry is that when he ran with the ball, he was not running so much as gliding. Watching him move past opposing defenders was like watching someone walk past you on the moving sidewalks in the airport when you are walking on normal ground. Their body seems to be going at the same speed as yours, but they somehow keep getting farther and farther away from you.
France controlled the game comfortably throughout, and was leading 2–0 with just a few minutes left. But I can still picture those final moments as if they’re happening right in front of me: Henry dispossesses the South African striker Shaun Bartlett of the ball, then cuts toward the goal with the inside of his right foot. For a moment, it seems like Henry has pushed the ball a little bit too far. The oncoming South African defender Willem Jackson senses this, and slides to the ground to intercept it. But just as he does so, Henry nudges the ball with the very edge of his toe, slipping it between Jackson’s legs, then dashes past him in a blur. The crowd rises to their feet; grown men with faces painted the colors of the French flag yelp in unison. Now Henry has entered the 18-yard box, the goalkeeper’s territory, but he’s done so at an angle at which most right-footed players would struggle to get off a dangerous shot. The goalkeeper, Hans Vonk, rushes out of his box toward Henry. He thinks he can get to the ball before Henry does, and even if he doesn’t, he knows that his opponent has dramatically limited his own potential shooting angles. But this is Thierry Henry.
As Vonk closes in, Henry slices his foot under the ball in a quick, piercing movement. The ball rises and feathers over Vonk, its backspin vibrating through the air. As it descends along its gentle arc, the ball bounces just a yard in front of the goal line, giving the illusion that the defender chasing it, Pierre Issa, might be able to stop it before it crosses the line. But the ball’s backspin wrong-foots Issa, like a Roger Federer drop shot that lands just beyond the net. Issa trips over the ball, and it bumbles into the goal. Henry wheels off in delight.
My jaw dropped. My grilled cheese grew cold.
All of this happened in about five seconds. That single, fleeting moment encapsulated so much of who Thierry Henry was as a player—quick, technical, agile, with a high soccer IQ. He was also someone who looked like me. I recognized, in his complexion, my own. At the time, I could not express what that meant to me, but I felt it in the thumping of my chest.
France would win the 1998 World Cup, and I would line my bedroom with posters of Thierry Henry, so I could look up at images of what I one day hoped to be.
I was 13, and by now soccer enveloped every part of my life. When I wasn’t at practice or a game, I was kicking the ball against the wall outside our house, learning to juggle with both feet, dribbling through cones I had placed in the backyard. I was one of only two Black players on my new competitive travel team—the other was my cousin. That May, we won the state championship, qualifying to compete in one of the four regional championships across the country.
Our region included powerhouses like Texas and North Carolina, places from which some of the top players in the country were emerging. Louisiana, by comparison, was no hotbed of soccer talent, and my teammates and I were mostly just happy to have the chance to participate. But our coach, a fiery red-headed Englishman, was flabbergasted at our complacency. He ran us hard through those early days of summer training, his skin turning pink in the Louisiana sun as we pushed our bodies to their teenage limits. And when we weren’t training, we were inside the clubhouse, watching the World Cup.
During the 1998 World Cup, I had not paid much attention to the U.S. men’s national team, but to be fair, the team hadn’t given fans much to pay attention to. They lost all three of their games—to Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia. They scored a single goal and didn’t make it past the first round.
Four years later, the U.S. team had a chance to redeem itself. But America’s first opponent was Portugal, one of the best teams in the world, captained by Real Madrid’s Luis Figo, the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year. It was unfathomable to many that a team composed largely of players from the fledgling Major League Soccer could compete.
After just four minutes, the United States raced out to a 1–0 lead when the midfielder John O’Brien thumped in a rebound. Twenty-five minutes later, the ball bounced to Landon Donovan on the right side of the field. Donovan controlled the ball with his chest, took two touches, and kicked in a cross. It racqueted off the back of a Portuguese defender’s head, soared past the goalkeeper, and went into the net for an “own goal”—the Portuguese had scored against themselves. Donovan raised his hands in disbelief.
Then Brian McBride, who had barely made the roster after struggling with an injury, scored with a diving header on to a luscious cross sent in from American defender Tony Saneh. The U.S. was up 3–0 against one of the best teams in the world. Portugal would mount a comeback effort, but it wasn’t enough. The U.S. won.
Our coach turned to us and said, “If America can beat Portugal, you all can beat any team in the country.”
It was the most successful World Cup run for the United States since 1930. The Americans made it all the way to the quarterfinals, and were one missed call away from possibly beating Germany and making it into the semifinal round. That summer it was possible to believe that America’s men’s team was on the brink of becoming a serious contender.
The World Cup was being held in Germany, and much of the coverage leading up to it focused on fears of the racism that Black players might be subjected to: “Players and antiracism experts said they expected offensive behavior during the tournament,” The New York Times reported, “including monkey-like chanting; derisive singing; the hanging of banners that reflect neofascist and racist beliefs; and perhaps the tossing of bananas or banana peels, all familiar occurrences during matches in Spain, Italy, eastern Germany and eastern Europe.”
In Spain that year, the Cameroonian forward Samuel Eto’o, who played for Barcelona, had been subjected to racist abuse from the other team’s fans. Eto’o, who was then one of the best players in the world, was visibly (and understandably) upset, and threatened to walk off the field. In Germany, the Nigerian forward Adebowale Ogungbure had been taunted with monkey noises and spit upon. In Belgium, the American defender Oguchi Onyewu had been punched in the face by an opposing fan.
The concerns weren’t just about what was happening to players on the field. People were also worried about what could happen to fans off of it. Uwe-Karsten Heye, a former spokesperson for the German government, said that anyone “with a different skin color” should avoid certain small and midsize towns, particularly in eastern Germany. If they weren’t careful, he said, they “might not leave alive.”
A coalition of immigrant groups in Germany called the Africa Council published a “No Go” guidebook for nonwhite visitors—an unsettling parallel to the “green book” that many Black Americans traveling through the South in the early-to-mid-20th century carried with them, to know which hotels and restaurants would welcome them and which would not. German authorities pushed back, claiming that no one was in any sort of danger.
A few years earlier, when I was a sophomore at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, we’d had a playoff game against Dutchtown High School in Geismar, Louisiana. Geismar is a predominantly white town with several thousand people and a large petrochemical plant that dominates the skyline. As I remember it, I was the only Black player on the field—not an uncommon occurrence, but one that felt particularly conspicuous that day.
We won that afternoon and were on our way to what would be our first-ever state championship. I remember I played well. It was the sort of game where everything felt in sync. My feet were light, my lungs were full, and my relationship to the ball was almost symbiotic.
After the game, we walked over to the crowd where our parents and friends sat. Normally, after we won, they’d be grinning and congratulating us, but this time they looked uneasy. It turned out that at one moment during the game, after I had dribbled past multiple defenders and passed the ball to a teammate who scored a thumping header, someone in Dutchtown’s section of the stands had shouted, “Take that nigger out.”
I did not hear the slur from the field, but it came from directly behind my parents. My mother recalls there being a collective gasp from the stands. My father stood up and said to the Dutchtown fans, “If you’ve got something to say to my son, say it to me now.” Someone called security over and the heckler was removed, and some of the Dutchtown fans apologized, but a chill hung over the rest of the match. After the game, we didn’t stay to celebrate. We were shuffled into the cars and onto the bus. My parents told me what had happened. My jubilation from the win was erased. My heart dropped.
The 2006 World Cup is remembered for one particular, infamous episode. In extra time of the final, the French captain, Zinédine Zidane, turned around and headbutted the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest. Materazzi collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain. No one knew what had provoked Zidane, who had long been one of the best players in the world and was planning to retire after that very game. Rumors spread. Conspiracies were born. A few weeks later, members of Zidane’s family told the press that Materazzi had called him a terrorist, an especially painful slur for a man like Zidane, who was born in France to Algerian parents. While Materazzi denied saying this, he admitted that he had insulted Zidane.
Whether it was an episode of explicit racism or not was impossible to say. Still, in the aftermath, UEFA, the sport’s governing body in Europe, announced new rules mandating that racist abuse be punished by a suspension of up to five matches.
As far as I know, no one was punished for what happened in Dutchtown.
The tournament was held in South Africa, the first World Cup ever on the African continent. No African team had ever made it past the quarterfinals, and there was a hope that one of the five participating African nations might benefit from a sort of pan-African home-field advantage.
I had spent the previous year studying abroad in Senegal, where soccer is everywhere. Take a walk along the beaches of Dakar, and you will likely find a group of people playing. If it is low tide and the shore is dry, sand will spit up behind players’ feet and freckle everyone’s legs. If it is high tide and the beach is wet, the surface will be firmer, but they’ll be playing as much against the waves lapping on the shore as against the other players.
Senegal had made it to the quarterfinals in 2002, beating France, the reigning world champion, along the way. While one must be careful of projecting geopolitical history onto sports teams, the significance of this small West African nation defeating the country that had colonized and ruled over it for more than 300 years was not lost on many.
Senegal was the place that rescued my relationship to soccer. Until I went to college, I had had a successful playing career. I’d won multiple state championships with my club and high-school teams. I’d made the All-City teams, the All-State teams. Soccer was my identity. It was what people knew me for. It was what I knew myself for.
Then I got a scholarship to play Division 1 soccer at Davidson College, but I didn’t get much playing time. I was a benchwarmer for the first time in my life. I began to experience what I can only describe as a sort of 20-year-old existential crisis. For a decade I had dedicated my life to becoming the best soccer player I could be, and I didn’t know what to do when the talent that had carried me this far was no longer enough. It was dawning on me that periodic cameos off the bench for my small liberal-arts school’s team might mark the end of my dreams of a professional soccer career.
But my time in Senegal, during the spring of my junior year, helped me recalibrate my relationship to the game. Soccer didn’t need to give me a sense of self or self-worth. It could simply be the game I loved.
When I returned to college for my senior year, I had more fun playing than I had in years. The anxiety about my time on the field was replaced by simple gratitude for the fact that I got to wake up every day and play soccer with some of my best friends. After graduation, I decided that I wanted to work in public health in South Africa. Watching the World Cup take place there only enhanced my excitement, seeing the way that the continent rallied around the team from Ghana, which looked like it was on the brink of achieving something special.
On July 2, in Johannesburg, Ghana faced Uruguay in the quarterfinals. Ghana was the final African team in the running. With less than a minute left, the game was tied at 1–1. Ghana’s Dominic Adiyiah headed the ball toward the goal. Those in the stadium stood. Those of us watching on television held our breath. The ball looked destined to fly above the Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez’s head, winning the game for Ghana. But then, Suárez cleared the ball off the line … with his hands.
I had never seen anything like it. Bedlam. Suárez got a red card and was sent off the field. Ghana was awarded a penalty kick.
The Ghanaian forward Asamoah Gyan stepped up to take the kick. The hope of his country, and perhaps his entire continent, rested on his shoulders. Gyan’s teammates put their hands on their heads; some couldn’t look and turned around to face the other direction. I remember shaking when the referee blew the whistle and Gyan approached the ball. As he shot it, the Uruguayan goalkeeper dove the wrong way, but Gyan’s shot hit the crossbar, ricocheting up into the sky. The Uruguayans were jubilant. They couldn’t believe their luck. Gyan’s teammates sank to their knees. The game went into penalty kicks, and Uruguay came away victorious.
“It still pains. I’m still feeling it anytime I think about it,” the Ghanaian defender John Paintsil said a decade after the infamous night.
A year later, Suárez, who played for the English team Liverpool FC, was suspended for eight games for racially abusing the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who is Black: During a heated exchange on the field, Suárez called Evra “negro,” in Spanish. This year, Ghana and Uruguay were drawn into the same round; they’ll play each other on December 2. Luis Suárez is the star of the Uruguayan team.
I was a high-school English teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and soccer no longer dominated my life. I played on a Saturday co-ed team full of other 20-somethings in which the visit to the bar after the game was at least as important as the match itself.
Watching games in sports bars was becoming a central part of my soccer life. No longer was I fixated on my own performance on the field; instead, the joy of the game was about being part of a room full of friends and strangers losing ourselves in moments of collective euphoria.
Many of my friends were teachers and had the summer off, allowing us to gather at a local pub to watch the midday World Cup games, held in Brazil that year. Soccer had become more popular in the United States over the preceding decade, and although the U.S. team hadn’t yet been able to replicate the success of their 2002 quarterfinal run, there was hope that this year would be different.
On the days when the U.S. played, bars were packed. The Americans defeated Ghana, tied Portugal, and lost to Germany. It was enough to make it to the next round. Then the United States faced Belgium, one of the best teams in the world. I watched the game that Tuesday afternoon at a bar crowded with American soccer fans. The space was all red-white-and-blue jerseys and smelled of French fries and IPAs.
Given our country’s history, I’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable publicly and unabashedly cheering for an American sports team—a slight tinge of discomfort prevented me from going all in. Readers can disagree with this quandary, but for me it was a real one, reflecting something that many people who come from communities with complicated, and often violent, relationships to American history experience. But watching this World Cup, I felt some of that wariness fade away. I sang, and danced, and chanted with people whose backgrounds represented the plurality and the possibility of this country. Cheering for the United States felt more like cheering for what this country was aspiring to be, rather than just what it was.
In the match, Belgium pummeled the Americans with shot after shot. But the American goalkeeper Tim Howard put on a performance for the ages, making 16 saves during the game—the most ever recorded at a World Cup. After the game, one fan edited the Wikipedia entry for Secretary of Defense so it bore Howard’s name.
In the end, the U.S. failed to take advantage of Howard’s heroics. In extra time, Belgium finally scored twice, winning the game 2–1. But what I remember most is how everyone in the bar collectively gasped, cheered, groaned, and held their breath through the ebbs and flows of the game. The way chanting U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A. felt neither jingoistic nor like an empty expression of shallow patriotism, but like a reflection of the shared enthusiasm we had for the players on the field who represented this messy, beautiful, disappointing, complex country we all called home.
By now, I was the father of a 1-year-old and a Ph.D. student overwhelmed by a lack of sleep and a blank Microsoft Word document with a blinking cursor where my dissertation was supposed to be. I had injured my ankle in a pickup game and hadn’t played soccer in months. I was only a spectator now.
This World Cup would be different from all others in my lifetime. The United States had failed to qualify for the first time since 1986. To say that this was an embarrassment would be a massive understatement. All the team had needed to do was tie Trinidad and Tobago (which had already been eliminated from World Cup contention) in its final game. The U.S. lost, finishing in fifth place in its confederation, behind Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras.
The ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman, a former U.S. men’s national team player, went on a viral rant: “With the amount of money that is in Major League Soccer and is in this sport, you can’t get a draw, a tie, against Trinidad? You don’t deserve to go to the World Cup, plain and simple.”
What’s more, the tournament was being hosted by Russia, which in recent years had interfered in America’s presidential election and invaded Crimea, beginning what is now understood as Vladimir Putin’s imperial project to strip Ukraine of its democratic statehood and “return” the land and the people to Russia.
Leading up to the tournament, there was concern that many Americans wouldn’t bother tuning in at all, and that’s exactly what happened. Ratings early in the tournament showed that about half as many Americans watched the World Cup in 2018 as did in 2014.
It’s a shame, because the 2018 World Cup proved to be the most compelling I’d ever seen.
I watched the games at home, on the television, on iPads, on iPhones—often multiple games simultaneously—while feeding, holding, and changing my son. The best game of the tournament was the round-of-16 matchup between Japan and Belgium. Belgium was again considered a favorite, but Japan took a surprising 2–0 lead. Then Belgium mounted a comeback and leveled the score at 2–2. With just a few seconds left in the game, Japan took a corner kick that was caught by the Belgian goalkeeper, who quickly rolled the ball out to the midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. De Bruyne flew 50 yards upfield with the ball, four Japanese players chasing behind him. After crossing the halfway line, he passed the ball with the outside of his foot to his teammate Thomas Meunier, who had been galloping alongside him down the right side. Meunier passed the ball into the box, toward the forward Romelu Lukaku, who cheekily let the ball roll past him—deceiving the Japanese goalkeeper and leaving him off-balance—so that it landed straight in the path on the oncoming Belgian midfielder Nacer Chadli, who had the simple task of tapping the ball into the open net. It was the sort of counterattack a team dreams of. It was textbook. It was perfect.
The United States qualified this year. In the first round, they’re scheduled to start by playing Wales and end by playing Iran. In between, in what may be one of the most watched U.S. men’s games of all time, the team will play England, the day after Thanksgiving. We’ll be watching from my parent’s home in New Orleans. My kids are 3 and 5 now, in the early days of falling in love with the game. Instead of giving them leftover turkey, I might make all of us some grilled-cheese sandwiches. For old times’ sake.
The tournament isn’t free from controversy. This is FIFA after all. It is being held in winter for the first time ever because the host country—Qatar—is too hot in the summer. Migrant workers who built the stadiums have done backbreaking labor for only a fraction of their promised wages, often living in over-crowded, dilapidated spaces. Nevertheless, billions of people will tune in. If we’re lucky, there’ll be fleeting moments of agony and glory, epic headers and feathering backspins, unexpected stars whose play captures the imaginations of children across the world, and spectators on every continent rising to their feet in celebration of the awe-inspiring spectacle of such physical, psychological, and technical genius—a genius worth celebrating no matter which country’s jerseys are on the field.
Maybe there’ll be a moment like the one four years ago, when I was rooting for the underdogs, Japan, in that game against Belgium. I couldn’t help but be utterly enraptured by the Belgians’ brilliance in that final counterattack. I remember unwittingly standing up from the couch, holding my baby in one hand and a spoonful of mushed peas in another, and walking around the room gobsmacked by that last-minute, game-winning goal. “Did you see that?” I asked the small, sleepy child in my arms, who was suddenly quite awake, his eyes wide, his mouth agape. “Did you see that?!”
Listen to Clint Smith on an episode of Radio Atlantic: