Sunday, June 20, 2010

The World Cup and American Attitudes

The World Cup presents an interesting sociological study of Americans. Granted, I am no sociologist, so anything after that first sentence deserves your criticism, but think about it.

More Americans play soccer than any other sport. It would stand to reason that soccer should be more popular than anything here. But by traditional metrics, it's tough to make anything close to that claim. Our national soccer league barely registers with most people (except here in Seattle, where tens of thousands turn up for Sounders games).

But every two years, when either the Euro or World Cup takes place, soccer is front-and-center. When most major U.S. sports Web sites are leading with soccer, we start to see that people are into this stuff. Interestingly, when the USA is playing in the CONCACAF championships - our version of the Euro with vastly lower overall talent - it doesn't get nearly the same attention. So, observation #1: Americans love good soccer, but don't pay mediocre soccer much attention.

And my oh my... good soccer is in heavy supply right now. This might be the most wide-open opening round of a World Cup I can remember (which, in my case, is 1990). As of this typing, The USA is having a much better showing than England. Or France. New Zealand could advance to the second round.

But, frequent soccer watchers can attest, it doesn't take long to see how some Americans struggle with the game. Soccer is in many ways a cerebral sport. Pace of the game, momentum and quality of play are all frequent game discussions. If you're a soccer fan, the USA-England game was maddening for either side because there were moments where each side dictated the pace of the game, yet missed key chances (or in many cases, got lucky the other team did the same). I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, except when I was up and pacing around. Yet, I know from Twitter, many others found the game to be a snoozer. So, observation #2, or more a query I'd be interested in studying: Some Americans "get" soccer and others don't. I wonder why.

And I don't think it's the same reason for everyone. Some people cannot deal without scoring. Maybe these folks demand closure. I think the reason I can live with a 1-1 draw is that I think life is lived in shades of gray.

But, heaven help us if we're not political... some folks, primarily on the right, see soccer as more than not meeting the sensibilities of Americans. Hell, a few think it's a threat to our way of life.

You can read a good sampling of the blather here, but lest you give me a line that it's just a few wing-nuts, let's look at some examples. For instance, here are some quotes from best-selling author and much-watched pundit Glenn Beck on June 11:

"It doesn't matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn't matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn't matter how many bars open early, it doesn't matter how many beer commercials they run, we don't want the World Cup, we don't like the World Cup, we don't like soccer, we want nothing to do with it ... I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat."

Nice Glenn. He's hardly alone. I mean there is no shortage of rightist loudmouths, but if you read some of the content out there, it becomes clear that many of these folks are (observation #3) uncomfortable with the idea that the USA, in all its glory, is not "the best" at soccer.

It's alarming. Some of these boneheads go as far as to say soccer doesn't reward excellence, which would be news to any fan of Brazil, Italy or club teams like Barcelona, Manchester United, AC Milan... These folks are drawing parallels between "liberal" love of the World Cup and "liberal" tendencies toward socialism. To me, it reeks of jingoism.

Nutty punditry aside, the thing I like the most about the World Cup is observing that (#4) since I've been watching the World Cup, this is the first time I've noticed Americans paying more than casual attention. Which, as a soccer fan, is the best thing.

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