Why the right still considers soccer an un-American activity


PRESENT TENSE:The Americans have played in every World Cup since 1990, yet US conservatives remain hostile to what they see as a Hispanic game, writes DAVIN O'DWYER

THERE ARE some perennial sideshows to every World Cup, and over time they become as intrinsic a part of the tournament as the football itself. The debate about how each newly designed football behaves like a helium balloon is a mainstay; the England team always find innovative ways to self-destruct; while the Dutch players often act like housemates in Big Brother, throwing tantrums and getting kicked out.

And then there is the well-worn story about how, finally, the Americans are taking to the game they call soccer.

Every time the world gathers for its footballing shindig we wonder why the Yanks don’t get the beautiful game. In response we hear how many tykes are playing the game at school level, and how successful the American women’s team are. Every time we are warned that the sheer number of people playing the sport in the US guarantees that it will become a footballing superpower at some point beyond the future’s visible horizon.

Credit where it’s due: the American national men’s team have consistently qualified for the tournament since 1990, and they’ve been a pretty handy side for the past five years or so. The era when we could mock them for “rushing to the end zone” and fielding “goaltenders” is over now, alas.

But, while it’s true that football has an increasing number of players and viewers in the US, there is still a widespread resistance to the game there. And, now more than ever, that resistance is vocally lead by prominent US conservatives.

Leading the tirades this time around is Fox News conspiracist-in-chief Glenn Beck, who didn’t exactly celebrate the opening of the World Cup last week. Demonstrating his rare gift for nonsensical analogies, he compared the tournament to Barack Obama’s policies: “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 . . . The rest of the world likes Barack Obama’s policies, we do not.”

Then Matthew Philbin, writing for the conservative website NewsBusters, sounded off: “As healthcare reform and stimulus spending have underscored, if Europe jumped off a cliff, the American left would be right behind it. So it makes sense that the media’s main argument for accepting soccer is that ‘everybody’s doing it’.”

Perhaps most tellingly of all, former Richard Nixon henchman G Gordon Liddy said on his radio show: “This game, I think, originated with the South American Indians and, instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior.”

This comment unwittingly revealed a central tenet of conservative opposition to soccer: despite the best efforts of suburban soccer moms, soccer in the US is identified as a Hispanic game. When conservatives oppose immigration in order to protect an illusory “real America”, which is barely concealed code for “white, conservative America”, it is clear that the growth of a Hispanic game is also perceived as a threat. The fact that one US player is called Carlos Bocanegra just emphasises the point.

Furthermore, the nativism and xenophobia that are so characteristic of today’s American conservatives mean that the sport’s global reach becomes evidence not just of, well, widespread popularity, but also of the fact that the game is necessarily at odds with their definition of Americanism. So soccer is framed as representative of socialism, or multilingualism, or whatever the hell is irking them this month. Its very popularity is enough to make it suspicious. As Beck revealingly put it, “I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much.”

Of course, the Americans wouldn’t be the first people to exhibit a deep-rooted suspicion of a “foreign game”, as we well know, but there isn’t the same postcolonial motivation for these soccer haters.

There are two delicious ironies in all this conservative bleating. The first is that another of Nixon’s henchmen, Henry Kissinger, is the most eminent soccer fan in the US. The second is that many US sports, such as basketball and gridiron football, both highly symbolic of American sporting exceptionalism, use a “draft system” for player recruitment, which gives the weaker pro teams first pick of the fresh talent coming out of college.

Never mind Obama’s healthcare bill, these sports are practically Bolshevik in their enduring devotion to a centralised redistribution of wealth. The World Cup might capture global attention, but at least the competition displays a pretty rigorous adherence to the principle that the winner takes it all. The free market has spoken, after all, and soccer has won.

Shane Hegarty returns next week