Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Future Of Soccer In America

As I blogged a few days ago, I am a recent convert to real soccer fandom. This gives me, as someone who didn't grow up playing or watching it, but has come to genuinely enjoy doing both as an adult, what I suppose is a somewhat unique take on the ongoing debate about the game's future in America.

If you take the media's word for it, Americans are divided into two camps on the question of soccer -anti-soccer nativists and pro-soccer xenophiles. The nativists are the people who complain that soccer is boring, that nothing happens, that it's too low-scoring and that too much of the action consists of kicking the ball back and forth in the midfield. They insist that it will never take off in America because American sports, with their higher scoring and greater highlight potential, are more suited to American cultural sensibilities. If they're childish, they'll say that soccer sucks and that people who enjoy it are dorks. They may insist that soccer fans are trying to "ram the game down Americans' throats". Often, there is an overlap between disdain for soccer and political and cultural conservatism, though not always - anti-soccer sentiment can be found even among otherwise true-blue cosmopolitan liberal elite types. The xenophiles, conversely, are disproportionately represented among left-leaning demographics (the young, urbanites, immigrants), and supposedly embrace soccer for the same reasons they embrace salsa dancing, sushi, and yoga - it's hip, it's cool, it's multicultural. Though they are still somewhat uncommon, their numbers are growing, and they insist to anyone who will listen that soccer is the sport of the future, and that if Americans don't love it the way the rest of the world does it's because they don't yet understand it.

I find myself somewhere in the no man's land between these two camps. Until I lived abroad and was exposed to the game as played on its highest level, I was not much of a fan, and I do think that there is some merit to the American skeptic's charge that soccer is too unimaginative and low-scoring - played conservatively by technically-lacking sides whose best chance for a result is to go into a defensive shell and play for a draw (and maybe a 1-0 victory if they're lucky enough to score on a counterattack), soccer can be very tedious. Unfortunately, such tactics are distressingly common even on the game's highest level - for every Brazil or Barcelona, who move the ball around fluidly and attack with verve and imagination, there's a team like Italy or Arsenal who methodically grinds out results with suffocating (and suffocatingly dull) defense. On the other hand, I find charges that the game is slow and lacks action absurd coming from people who enthusiastically embrace baseball, a sport in which a single game can easily last four hours, only a few minutes of which are actual game action, the rest consisting of minute-long intervals of players stretching, adjusting their equipment, knocking dirt off their spikes, and scratching themselves. If I hadn't grown up with baseball and learned to appreciate the game's slow rhythms as part of its charm from a young age, I suspect I'd find it excruciatingly dull, just as many people from outside the baseball-playing world do when exposed to it as adults. It's pretty clear that cultural conditioning matters a great deal in what we find compelling in athletic competition.

Viewed through this lens, soccer's role as a (excuse the pun) political/cultural football in the American debate makes a lot more sense. Though enough American kids play soccer that there's an entire sociopolitical category named after their parents, it's not a sport with any connection to the American sense of self-identity. It's not the "national pasttime" the way baseball is, and its best young players aren't feted in the media as "All-Americans" the way those in basketball and football are. Such as it is associated with any sort of cultural identity in American discourse, that identity tends to be either a.)Latin American, or b.)European. For the Cro-Magnon right, there's no two groups more antithetical to "the real America" than immigrants and socialists, who happen to come, in this group's imagination, from, respectively, Latin America and Europe. Rejecting soccer is thus a handy shorthand gesture for any sort of cultural influence from these areas of the globe. It is hard to express with sufficient force my contempt for this kind of attitude. It's one thing to just not particularly care for the sport, but when somebody like Glenn Beck says, without even taking into consideration the merits or flaws of the game itself, that he hates the World Cup just because the rest of the world loves it, he's essentially declaring himself an ignorant, narrow-minded boor and proud of it. On the other hand, liberals who lionize soccer for its multicultural cache and egalitarianism are pretty thoroughly deluded, ignoring as they do the fact the game's European fans can express some pretty unenlightened cultural attitudes at times, and that the economic structure of the game in Europe much more closely resembles the haves-and-have-nots setup of MLB than the more socialistic models of the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

My take? To the extent that there is there is one - the fragmentation of the entertainment world and the ever-proliferating number of sports options dilute the meaning of the term - soccer is a good candidate for the title of "sport of the future", though not for the reasons its advocates often cite. I think it will continue to gain in popularity in the United States, though primarily because of demographic and technological trends rather than ideological appeal. First, the demographic groups that tend to like soccer (immigrants, Latinos, college-educated hipsters, etc.) are increasingly large slices of the American population, whereas those that don't (older people and cultural irredentists who conceive of American identity as primarily white, Christian, and suburban or rural) are increasingly small slices. Second, the arrival of the internet and satellite TV means that Americans (who, after all, only want to watch the best of anything), can now much more easily follow elite foreign teams and leagues, rather than settling for a second-rate product like Major League Soccer. The globalization of sports means more than Kobe Bryant jerseys on the streets of Beijing, regular-season NFL games in London, and droves of foreigners arriving to play in the MLB, NBA, and NHL - it also means people in New York waking up in Saturday morning and heading to their local English-style pub to catch the matchup of the week in the English Premier League. I agree with Daniel Drezner's contention that soccer won't really take off until the U.S. fields a team that genuinely contend for the title of the world's best, and with Matt Yglesias' point that growth in the sport's popularity is unlikely to come at the expense of one of the current major American sports. But it will come.

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