That was one very strange soccer game yesterday. The US scores on a masterful Clint Dempsey run into the box in the first 30 seconds – and then proceeds to play some very gruesome soccer for 84 minutes or so. Broken passes, hardly any sustained possession, hardly any serious attacks on the Ghanaian goal. Fortunately for us, Ghana was not a great deal better – they knocked the ball around well enough, but their decision-making and shot-taking around the box was pretty terrible. Then, they break through with a lovely side-footed smash from Andre Ayew, and it looks for all the world like we’re heading for a 1-1 draw – a fair result, and not a terrible one from the US perspective. But in the 86th minute, the US conjures up a corner (after a defensive miscue by the Ghanaian defender) and 19 year old John Brooks, a late sub making just his 5th appearance for the national team, cracks in a header and the US comes away with the 3 points. Two magical moments, with a whole lot of dreck in between.
Every four years we hear endless speculation about when, or whether, the US will join the rest of the known universe and embrace – not just enjoy, but truly embrace in the life-or-death manner of most every other country on the planet – the beautiful game. The growth in interest in the years since I personally started following international soccer (in the early 90s) has been phenomenal, to be sure; those crowds in Grant Park and the Hartford Civic Center and elsewhere scattered around the country that they kept showing on the ESPN broadcast would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, and the temperature will rise significantly if the US is fortunate enough to make it into the knockout phase (still a long shot, imho). But it surely doesn’t grip our national soul in the way it does in many – most – other places. It’s a niche sport – an increasingly popular niche sport, but still a niche sport. We will not engage in a sustained bout of national soul-searching and self-doubt if our team does poorly; I happened to be in France during the last World Cup, and when the French team flamed out most ignominiously the bitter feeling it left behind was palpable pretty much everywhere I went. And Italy … don’t get me started. The performance of the national teams in these countries – and in Brazil, and Argentina, and Bosnia, and Algeria, and … — matter to people in ways that the performance of our team simply doesn’t — and, quite possibly, never will.
Personally, I’m not sure it will ever quite happen. To begin with, it is strange, when you think about it, how little our national teams mean in any of our sports. Yes, there was the 1980 Olympic hockey team - the exception that proves the rule, I think. According to Simon Kuper in the FT (whose soccer columns I highly recommend), thirty-four percent of Europeans agreed with the statement: “When my national (soccer) team loses, I and sad or upset for days.” And that’s just Europe; the number is surely just as high and probably higher in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, and Chile, and for all I know in parts of Africa and Asia as well. We have nothing remotely like this. I’m not entirely sure why, but we don’t. It’s not that we’re not sports-crazed, obviously; many, many people in this country, of course, live or die with their teams – the Steelers or the Saints, the Red Sox or the Red Wings, the Orioles or the Cardinals . . . But hardly anyone feels that way about our national team in any sport. Of course, part of that is due to the fact that we happen to love sports that much of the rest of the world could care less about – football and baseball. But there’s a cause-and-effect question in there, and something tells me that more is going on. Many things unify Americans* into a single mass – but sports, oddly enough, is not one of them.
*Apologies, again, for my use of the term “American” to refer to the United States. It’s unpleasantly chauvinistic, and I know that it drives Mexicans and Canadians and Brazilians and Peruvians and other Americans to distraction – but there is really no other word for “United States-ians” (or for United States-esque culture and history).
I am also in the camp of those who believe that there is something about soccer – something quite fundamental to the game, and to its extraordinary appeal – that is at odds with something very fundamental about the US ‘national character,’ if one can speak of such a thing. Two things about soccer, actually.
The first is that soccer has wa-a-a-y too much failure in it, and, generally speaking, Americans don’t like failure, and don’t like to dwell upon it. Soccer is all about failure — about failure and the ability (and will) to overcome it. Over and over and over again they charge down the field, knowing full well that the chances that they get the ball into the net on the attack are awfully slim; think about that the next time you watch some left back running full tilt in the 88th minute of a 0-0 game to try to get himself in position to receive the ball on the counter-attack; he knows damned well that the whole enterprise is almost surely for naught, yet on he goes (at least, if he’s good, and “determined,” and “committed” – words you hear a lot at a soccer game). Succeed a couple or three times in 90 minutes (plus extra time!) of hard work and your team’s a juggernaut. Soccer fans do more cheering for the “good effort”, the fabulously-constructed set of passes that sets up a chance that doesn’t result in anything on the scoresheet, than fans in any other sport. [I laugh when I hear people say that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Really?! When pitchers who do not practice it at all can successfully get bat on ball 10 or 20 percent of the time? Hitting a baseball is not the hardest thing to do in sports - what Robin van Persie did, or what Lionel Messi did, is the hardest thing to do in sports - get that thing in the back of the net without using your hands in the face of a bunch of people trying to stop you].
And finally, I think that soccer much more caprice and randomness than Americans seem to like in their games. The fluke goal, the blown offside call, the slip on the turf by the central defender that turns a game completely upside-down – soccer games can and often do turn on the whim of the ref or one wobbly bounce of the ball. It is very much built into the DNA of the game. Better technology can eliminate some of it – referee decisions about whether the ball crosses the goal line, or whether attackers were, or were not, actually offside. But it is built into the way the game is played that the ref will make many mistakes – there’s too much ground to cover for one guy to see everything that’s going on, and too much judgment involved as to whether there was or was not a foul, and it all happens too damned fast. Our sports, of course, seem to be subject to the opposite dynamic; we have to get everything right. Eliminate chance – the game should be about which is the better team, and chance just gets in the way. But people talk about the “soccer gods” for a reason – because things that cannot otherwise be explained happen, in soccer as in life, all the time. Americans, I would suggest, know that that is true, but don’t like to dwell on it much, and soccer makes you dwell on it very, very much.
Of course, all this talk of “national character” is a bit of nonsense – there is probably no such thing, and, in any event, whatever it is or might be is always in the process of change. The sports we love do surely say something about us; and perhaps all I mean to suggest is that we’d have to undergo something of a transformation as a nation in order to join the rest of the world in this particular obsession. It could happen; as someone once said, there’s nothing harder to predict than the future. I’m not sure I would bet on it happening, however.