I had intended on writing a post about the issue of race in America, but in recognition of the World Cup fever that has overtaken this country I feel compelled to pen some observations about the gathering love affair between the American public and football (aka soccer).
As mentioned in my previous post, I approach this subject armed with ample quantities of ignorance and reluctance, as one of a shrinking minority that has little interest in the game. But given that everything from buying gum at my local 7/11 to travelling in a lift now involves some discussion of the latest match, I feel obliged to add my ten cents worth (or whatever is the equivalent amount in the UK).
Putting the action on the pitch to one side for a moment, there is actually something interesting to be observed about the attendant side effects of the World Cup here in the US. Firstly, while packing bars, restaurants and spare conference rooms (at least at my workplace), Americans seem to have surprised themselves with the level of interest and excitement generated here by the World Cup, and their national side’s participation in it.
Commentators have gushingly noted how this World Cup is netting (warning: this piece will be sprinkled with football metaphors) the highest US TV audiences ever, for soccer. Almost 25 million people watched the fixture against Portugal (that’s about 1 in 12 people across the whole of the country). And judging by the ghostly quiet on the streets of the Nation’s Capital during the USA-Germany match even more of the population was glued to a TV screen yesterday (excepting yours truly who was at an fitness class attended only by a distracted instructor and one other person). Figures also show that the US is fielding the largest contingent of foreign fans in Brazil – way in excess of any Latin American or European country.
Furrowed-brow discussions have ensued about what this all means, given the long-standing sporting isolationism of the US. Traditionally America has seen itself akin to the UK’s position regarding Europe, as summed up in the apocryphal newspaper headline, ‘Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off’. For example, the ill-named World Series Baseball Championship involves only teams from North America.
The issue of the World Cup’s following has even become a political football (!) with some saying that it denotes a coming of age for the USA in joining in this global pastime, while others asserting that it demonstrates a temporary (and unwelcome) foreign fad. Leading the charge on the latter viewpoint is conservative ‘commentator’ Ann Coulter, who sees in football’s popularity a sign of the USA’s moral decay. In a display that seamlessly marries ignorance and nativism she asserts that, ‘no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.’
Coulter sees something fundamentally ‘un-American’ about soccer, seemingly implying that it has been smuggled across the Rio Grande by people set upon undermining very fabric of the USA. This charge must mark a first alongside the (more credible) assertions that the game is responsible for work absenteeism, hooliganism and increasing the profits of breweries. And yet within Coulter’s poisonous brew there is something worth examining.
Many beyond the flaky ideological fringe see in the soccer phenomenon, a sign of an important (and positive) change within American society. In recent decades US has undergone a huge demographic change, most markedly with the increase in the number of Hispanic Americans. It is now estimated that at least 50 million out of over 300 million people in the country are of Hispanic origin. Spanish is now commonly heard in DC and other places on the East Coast, far from the traditional Hispanic heartlands in the West and South. With this demographic shift have come changes to the some of the old ways, including – many say – in sporting terms – the rise of soccer, which is now attracting not just big crowds but big money too.
But to the inexpert eye, I think this is only part of the explanation. Passing the bars in down-town DC, and where we live in the suburbs, most of those glued to the games don’t look like the newcomers of Ann Coulter’s nightmares, but instead resemble the very people whose ‘great-grandfathers were born in the US’. There is undoubtedly a degree of faddism to the current soccer-mania, but it also seems to reflect a desire to be part of something alongside the rest of the world. The US lacks national teams in most games popular elsewhere, and soccer may provide that sense of belonging. In more concrete terms, there is the fact that the game is probably reaping the rewards of the soccer Moms and Dads who invested their Saturday mornings (as I do now) in taking their kids to weekend matches. I suspect that many of those 20 or 30 something’s now sipping beer over World Cup games grew up kicking a football rather than handling one.
For me this means, that my trial by football will continue. The US is through to the last sixteen. But thanks to my daughters I am learning to distinguish Beckham from Beckerman, and Dempsey from Rooney, which will probably stand me in good stead in finding my place in the USA.