I am American; so is my family; I’ve always rooted against us. From the faded albums of my earliest memories I draw an image of my family, gathered upstairs with cups of cocoa in our hands, watching the replays of the American skier as he tumbled, helpless, down the mountain. God how we laughed.
Of course, like any team disloyalty, there’ve been disappointments, far too many to be mentally beneficial. The Summer Olympics are a playground for Americans these days. Since the end of the Soviet Union, our squad has romped home every year with more medals than anyone. The thought of ’04, when that chirping, beaming Texan Carly Patterson, who had all the style and sex appeal of a perky sophomore cheerleader, bounced her way past the ice princess Svetlana Khorkina in the gymnastics all-around, still galls me. But the Olympics are full of such sadness and I no longer watch them.
The World Cup’s a more reliable producer of national disasters. After forty years in the cold, we only returned to Cup play in 1990. Our W.C. trips are short ones, not completely unsuccessful but always punctuated by a serious lack of pulchritude, not to mention numerous ass-handings from anonymous poor countries. If any one country has our number it’s Ghana, the West African nation that’s spoiled our chances in two Cups running. Their hero Michael Essien is finally wearing down, but when I took my seat at the bar two weeks ago yesterday I figured they still had the muscle to knock us on our backs. I felt a superior equanimity, looking around the bar. You suckers are in for a let-down.
Not quite. Ninety minutes later, I was the lone sittee; everybody else was running around like they were doing two-for-ones on Whip-its. The USA had won.
16 million people watched that game on ESPN / Univision. A record 25 tuned in for the next, a draw against Portugal. Bars struggled to seat customers. Passengers in a S.C. (S. C!) airport erupted in cheers. And the newspapers were declaring the arrival of American soccer, a conclusion that I couldn’t really argue with given the manifest joy of my Facebook newsfeed. From DownSouth Republicans to dirty-palmed hippies, my friends were megahappy. We’d finally caught The Bug.
Really though, the wonder is it’s taken so long. To a far greater degree than the solitary fetishes that they dignify with the title Olympic Games, Cup matches appeal to a hardcore range of universal instincts. Off the top of my head:
1. Nationalism – Until the struggle for resources ushers in WWIII, the World Cup is all we’ve got in terms of direct global one-up-manship
2. Sport – from the rivalries to the drama to the social palatable means of sublimating aggression, sports rock.
3. The submergence of ego to group – that’s the ecstasy of hugging after a goal and the milder pleasure of mellow office soccer chit-chat.
What’s important to note is that Americans in 2012 have their own private reasons for supporting the squad. In a post-Bush era, Exceptionalism’s passé and by urging our team to win we are in fact signaling equality. We were above the World Cup, not long ago; we considered it a sissy domain, good enough for the world’s other 208 countries but too full of men in short shorts and fans in scarves to really be worth fighting for. After all, we are the best. Football, B-ball, baseball, who even comes close? But times have change, and this year we’ve agreed to sit down and eat a share of the humble pie going round, take our wins, losses and ties just like everybody else. It’s kind of refreshing, actually, that we’re not the best. It allows us to cheer ourselves on with only a very modest note of irony. Go ‘Murica!
Sooner or later, we’re going to lose. Belgium today or Argentina this weekend, it’s not a question of if but how long. But soccer has planted its corner flags. More people are playing, more MLS teams are fielding and these TV ratings, second only to playoff football matches, can hardly go unnoticed by corporate America. And the sport doesn’t even need their bucks: we’ll still churn out winners, just like in gymnastics, swimming, skiing and other sports that occupy empirically nil portion of the TV schedule. We may not win a Final soon; we will be dishing whuppings to runts like Ghana.
I invite you to imagine the World Cup of 2022: the NBA and NHL Finals over, 45 or 55 million of us will change over channels and proudly watch our boys marching into action. They face long odds to be champions, but the magazines say that they’re much improved. We even recognize one or two of them, a handsome Landon Donovan or a gaunt and scrappy Dempsey. So we’ll gather at the bar or stream the games on our phones, and we’ll drink and laugh and chant and tweet as our boys bend over and spank the random sub-Saharans. Take that, Ghana! And for three weeks, it’s more of the same, and then we’ll play France and lose; and then we’ll sigh and we’ll drink and we’ll tweet, and then we’ll tweet some more, and then we’ll change the channel for good to American Ninja Warrior.
In that random sub-Saharan country we spanked, though, where every man and boy and at least half of the women can name all eleven starters on the national team, and where thoughts of football, dreams of football, are a sort of sustaining national myth; the kind of mental material that keeps a teen going in a dusty roundabout all day, handing satchels of water up to grubby bus windows; the kind of conversational fat that, unlike beef and chicken, they can chew on every day; in that country, in short, the sting of defeat will last longer. The day they lose will be a dark day, only slightly relieved by hopes for Next Time. The day we lose, we won’t be thinking of Next Time. We’ll be changing the channel and forgetting all about it. In our vast, vast galaxy of cheap-o entertainment, what’s a World Cup? One more escape.
P.s.: For a similar perspective but with an economist’s credentials see this link.