USA: No one rates us and we don't care
The English think they're playing a second-tier side on Saturday – but the 'Yanks' and their fans will surprise you, insists US sports writer Stefan Fatsis
Tuesday 08 June 2010
After almost two decades writing about sport, my fanhood isn't what it once was. I've just grown too close to the business of the games, and too familiar with how athletes think and what they do. A few summers ago, I even talked my way on to a National Football League team – as a placekicker, the guy who boots field goals and extra points – to write a book about the inner workings of America's most popular game. The players, I learned, don't sweat every victory and defeat. How can I?
As a New Yorker, that means I no longer shed tears when the Yankees (baseball) lose or jump for joy when the Giants (our football) win. But I make one exception: the US men's national soccer team.
That's right, I'm an American and yet I care about what you English might call proper football, and I care deeply about our admittedly second-tier national side. As long as I'm not sitting in a press box, I will scream and shout and exult and wallow in the performance of the USMNT, as it's known to diehards (US Men's National Team). On June 12, I'll be in the stands in Rustenburg, wearing a red shirt and rooting lustily for a miracle on grass. I can think of few sports-fan moments in my lifetime that would compare with felling mighty England in the World Cup. Yankees win the World Series? Done that, seven times in my life, 27 times overall. USA over USSR in ice hockey at the 1980 Olympics? The greatest upset in the history of sport, with delicious geopolitical overtones. But USA over Ing-er-land? That would be another level of sporting joy.
First, a little background. While youth soccer is an American fixture today, when I came of age in the 1970s it hadn't arrived in my New York City suburb. On the playground, we chose sides for endless hours of baseball, basketball and American football. But I was also predisposed to appreciate soccer. I was of Greek heritage. An older brother played for his high school and university teams. We watched weekly telecasts from England and Germany.
I didn't dribble a ball with any regularity until joining my own high-school side at age 13, and I never had a coach who understood the game. But I loved it. I still have the ticket stub from an England-Italy exhibition at Yankee Stadium in 1976 (England won, 3-2; Fabio Capello played for the Azzurri), and I was among the 75,000-plus who filled Giants Stadium to watch Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer and the rest of the star-studded Cosmos during soccer's brief, early spasm of Stateside popularity.
So save the shock when I or any other Yank demonstrate a love of the sport. The caricature of America as football's deepest backwater and of Americans as ignorant about the beautiful game is, or should be, dead. The US is filled with sophisticated and passionate native fans. We can watch as much football on ESPN and Rupert Murdoch's and other cable channels as you can. We pack pubs early on Saturday mornings to watch live Premier League telecasts. More than 3.5 million of our children play. And more and more of them are growing up to be rather competent, as the performances this season of Clint Dempsey at Fulham and Landon Donovan on loan to Everton, among others, demonstrate.
Indeed, informed Europeans – and not just the supporters of a couple of Premiership clubs chanting "USA! USA!" for our best field players – acknowledge the gradual progress. As our professional league and, more importantly, our youth training system improve (thanks in part to hordes of transplanted European coaches), the US national team is on the road to a rightful spot among the football elite. It won't happen for another 20 or 30 years, I'd venture, but it will happen.
While it's been excellent sport for English and other non-Americans to mock our soccer, the truth is that the USA will play its way into the world conversation without becoming a passionate football nation. We will develop talent on par with yours and Germany's and Spain's and Argentina's and Brazil's (OK, maybe not Brazil's), but we will not embrace the game with the single-minded nationalist fervour of those countries. We will become great at football, but it won't matter to all of us. That will not seem right to you.
Before bemoaning that eventuality, it might help to understand football's place in American history and why it evolved as a niche player in our sports pantheon. It's not because football is too inherently un-American – too low scoring, too few pauses, too few statistics – or that it's too amorphous or cerebral, or that we're hopeless sports philistines. While there may be some truth in those assertions (except for the last), football's place in America was decided long before the NFL and NBA roamed the earth.
Here's the short history. Some form of a kicking game has been played in America since settlers landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609. A recognisable modern form of the game debuted in the 1850s; one of the first clubs outside England was formed in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1862. But it was a hybrid that often allowed both kicking and handling the ball. American universities began choosing sides: Princeton, Yale and Columbia agreed on association football-like rules. Harvard preferred the rugby-like game. A defining moment came in 1875, when Harvard defeated Yale in a game that included both goals and tries. The other schools capitulated to the rugby game.
America was not only growing and industrialising, it was picking its sports – and it preferred ones it had invented. The first codified baseball game was played in 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The first basketball game was played in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. By the early 1900s, rugby had evolved into "football" in its modern form with padded uniforms and the forward pass. The adoption of those three sports left little room in popular American culture for others. Soccer was still played – the US joined FIFA in 1913; its first pro league was born in 1921, before the NFL – but mainly in social clubs and factories, in communities populated by European and other immigrants.
(A brief aside. While "football" might seem a misnomer for the American game, kicking played a much more central role early on than it does today. The term "soccer", meanwhile, is often credited to a future England team captain named Charles Wreford-Brown as an abbreviation for "association football". According to David Wangerin's Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America's Forgotten Game, published by WSC Books, "socker" or "soccer" appeared in print in the US in the early 1900s, but it didn't gain wide usage until the mid-20th century as American football's popularity grew.)
So association football's place in the US is a matter of historical circumstance and little more. Yet the game's secondary status has engendered years of arrogance and disdain in Europe, not to mention wilful ignorance about how much it's played and by whom. Of course, that's less about football on the field than about America's place in the world: a supposed lack of sophistication about football reflects a broader lack of sophistication. And by the way, while the US may dominate the world economically, culturally and militarily, well, at least it sucks at football.
"If Americans are bad at soccer and do not care, they should. And since they don't, this makes matters all the worse," says Andrei Markovits, a political science professor at the University of Michigan currently teaching at the University of Vienna, who writes about football and global culture. "But were Americans to get good at soccer, they would be perceived as a threat, as dominating yet another aspect of modern life, so that would be bad, too."
In other words, we can't win. But I for one like it that way. Even if we Americans are secure in our knowledge of football's history on our shores and realistic about our current station in the global football pecking order – our current No 14 FIFA ranking seems about right – and also believe we understand the psychological roots of European scorn, we still can't let it go. Truth is, we don't want to let it go. We want to stick it to the football snobs of the world instead.
This isn't Yankee imperialism at work; we don't want to take away "your" sport. On the contrary, I'd love for America to become a true footballing nation, with a universal fan base, a Premiership-calibre professional league and a top-flight national side that deserves and receives international respect. We're slowly moving in that direction. Last month's Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich was shown on a US broadcast television network (Murdoch's Fox) for the first time. Our professional league, Major League Soccer, averages 17,000 or so fans per game, many of them wearing scarves and singing club songs in stadiums built for exclusively for soccer.
And our national team? Just 20 years ago, when the US qualified for a World Cup for the first time since 1950, the team included university students and semi-professionals. In 2002, it reached the final eight. This year, it broke Spain's 35-match unbeaten streak and nearly toppled Brazil in the finals of the Confederations Cup. Small steps to be sure, but ones that drew praise even in a European press reluctant to say anything nice about US football, ever.
Which leaves me torn. It's not often that the US get to play the underdog in international sport, out-skilled and out-cheered, the nerd mocked by the cool kids. As a fan, that's why every US victory (or even near-victory) on the world stage provokes a potent release of testosterone and Schadenfreude. Screw you, world. Still want to make fun of us now?
But the day will come that we're no longer an insecure football afterthought, just another legitimate FIFA power with a deep reserve of talent that plays with sophistication and style. When it does, fans like me will enjoy the beautiful games and the balanced rivalries and the occasional trophies. But we'll also miss sticking a finger in the eye of the football establishment, the visceral thrill of defiance rewarded, the giddy possibility of a game like the one on 12 June.
Stefan Fatsis is the best-selling author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble (Yellow Jersey) and A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL (Penguin Press). He is a panellist on the sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen" on Slate.com and a regular guest on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
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