So the U.S. team has bombed at the World Cup. Again. And even though 2 billion people (!) are probably watching the World Cup, the fact that the U.S. even had a team in it hardly casts a ripple of awareness in America. Soccer gets even less interest from Americans than the quadrennial TV show Who Wants to Be America’s Next Despot. Why don’t Americans "get" soccer?
I’m no fan of soccer myself, but even I’ve noticed that every four years the world is engulfed in madness. People run out into the streets. Entire countries seem glued to their TV’s. Daily business evaporates. Even internet use drops off. But coverage in the U.S. media? Nada. Not even on the Fear Channel’s flagship program the Panic Room.
It’s easy to see why soccer is so popular around the world. Unlike other sports like hockey, baseball, football, golf and basketball, the barriers to entry are very low. All you need is an open space, markers for the goal posts and a ball. Sometimes you don’t even need that. A children’s charity commercial running up here in Canada features African boys who play soccer in a stretch of dirt with a "ball" made from plastic bags wadded together with string. Soccer is a highly accessible sport. No expensive equipment like skates, sticks, helmets, bats, gloves, clubs and whatever else are required.
There was recently an article on Slate that offered an explanation for soccer’s failure to capture the American mind. Supposedly, Americans can’t stomach the, shall we say, exaggerated and theatrical fouls the author claims are so common in soccer. Elaborate dives and face-clenching bouts of agony over some imagined sprain or tackle. Surely no American baseball, basketball or football player would exaggerate an injury. This doesn’t sound like a convincing explanation to me. Faking or exaggerating injuries doesn’t seem to affect the popularity of pro wrestling.
The more likely reason, I think, is a combination of nationalism — and the U.S. is certainly one of the most absurdly nationalistic societies on Earth, given to wild fanatical claims about itself in comparison to others, and naturally prefers “American” sports like baseball, basketball and football to foreign sports — and and the other is what could be called elitism. Although most Americans believe in merit or something like it, in their favored sports they seem to prefer athletes who are far beyond average. Whether it’s giants in basketball or football or power hitters in baseball, Americans seem to prefer displays of brute force and size over finesse and coordination.
Whether it’s kicking the ball, or battling it out of the park or dunking it, this preference for strength, I think, is a definite feature of the American sports mindset. Almost as if it wouldn’t be a sport if the average person with average ability could play it well.
And it’s not an original observation to say that American society is an unusually violent and brutal society in regards to it’s favored forms of entertainment, from sports to the movies and videogames to TV shows, especially the highly-rated TV show the "U.S. bombs and/or invades (insert name of country here)" regularly broadcast by the news/war channels. I think it’s certainly true that this preference for displays of destructive violence is translated into sports that feature displays of strength and favor large size.
Perhaps for Americans, sports are merely an interlude between wars and a substitute for the disparity of military destruction that the U.S. enjoys over other regimes, which excites and inspires the most nationalistic Americans.
Could it be that soccer’s worldwide popularity resides more in it’s equality of access, which favors societies where individuals have less disposable income to spend on sports equipment, but also is an expression of a more anti-imperialist and peaceful mentality in relation to the rest of the world?
Of course, another reason why Americans don’t get soccer might be that with their turn towards militarism and imperialism, they would naturally favor socialist cartels like the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball.
Adam Young [send him mail] writes from Canada and does not play hockey.