The embarrassing rise of the soccer intellectual
A reader turned me on to this Slate article entitled Soccer and the intellectual, which makes a series of embarrassing claims about the kind of American who's drawn to soccer (illustrated with a really insulting drawing of a goateed loser juggling a soccer ball while carrying a volume of Derrida).
The article poses a series of unflattering reasons why one would choose to follow soccer despite its relative obscurity, the first of which is its relative obscurity. If your tastes lead you to prefer things obscure to those commonplace, then in America soccer has much more cachet than the big three (or four) sports, all of which are impossible to miss thanks to constant commerical hype.
Many have accused me of liking soccer for just this reason, but I really don't think it's true. The story of my soccer liking (I'm using the lukewarm term because if I hear the words "soccer" and "passion" in the same sentence I'm going to regurgitate the protein bar I just ate) isn't really about discovering the sport accidentally while living in the US. Rather, it's something that always interested me (I watched World Cup games and the occasional US qualifier) but that I got really into during a summer spent living in Europe (perhaps an odd choice given that it was the offseason). It was more or less a one-off thing: I got tickets to a couple high-profile pre-season games at the Amsterdam Arena, and everything about the experience--the game, the environment, the fans--hooked me.
So I suspect that Slate's embarrassing explanation #2 might make more sense for me: taking an interest in soccer, as the author sez, "indicates a certain cosmopolitanism." Yeah, OK, I'm guilty. In my defense, here's how I see it: the world is a big and interesting place, and while I'm American to the core I'm interested in everything the globe has to offer, and soccer provides a convenient way to experience the various cultures of aforementioned globe. For one thing, it provides a lens through which one can examine societies; countless authors have weighed in on how soccer provides insight into world conflicts so I won't repeat that point here.
But at the same time, it provides a common thread that links people regardless of their national identity. Some commercial epitomized the idea with the ad slogan "we all speak soccer", and there's a lot of truth to this. The sport gives its followers something to discuss that transcends (and avoids) thornier issues that would be likely to create conflict or confusion. In the taxi to the airport when I was leaving, it was much more enjoyable to talk to the Algerian cabbie about his nation's talented but ill-fated 1982 World Cup team than to be all like "Hey, how bout those strained Arab-American relations?"
So I plead guilty to the above, but there's one aspect of my enthusiasm for the game that the Slate piece doesn't touch on (and which lies in not a little tension with the point about cosmopolitanism): good old nationalism. For reasons that escape me, I've always been a bit of a crazy parochialist when it comes to international competition. When the Olympics are on, I follow the medal count to make sure we've won again (both most gold medals and highest overall medal haul). And this translates easily to soccer: my team is the US, like it or not. I follow Portugal due to some sense of ethnic loyalty, but at the end of the day I'm American and I'm tied to the fortunes of US soccer, win or (as the case appears to be at this tournament) lose.
This disassociates me (thankfully) from most of the folks that the Slate article talks about, who are soccer aestheticists and base their allegiances on anglophilia or a purported appreciation for a nation's style of play (punctuated, inevitably, with a reference to Eduardo Galeano's "a pretty move, for the love of god" line from Soccer in Sun and Shadow--cue bile rising). The latter take is a bit to precious for my taste. That, and it seems a losing proposition when so much soccer is dull and defensive (sorry folks, it's true--just like baseball is slow-moving, basketball is irrelevant til the last five minutes, and football consists of ten minutes of action interspersed between four hours of commercials). At the end of the day, this sports fan has to have a team to root for (and whenever I watch a game, I find myself picking sides involuntarily, just to make it interesting for me), and that goes an enormous way in lending emotion to games that would otherwise be snoozefests. Plus, if you don't root for your native country first and foremost, you're a total poser.
One place I get off board with Slate on this matter is the notion that soccer is a necessary alternative to following other American sports. First off, I don't think the point about authenticity of emotion is right. There's plenty of hackneyed manufactured pageantry in the World Cup, as I learned when watching the hour of pre-game schlock that preceded the Brazil-Croatia game in the Olympiastadion. It may not have been as tacky as a bunch of football players running out of a giant inflatable helmet, but it was lame and inauthentic nonetheless.
And second, there's no reason that enjoying soccer should be mutually exclusive with following other American sports. I love football in both its incarnations, and have often watched Arsenal on Saturday and then the New England Patriots on Sunday. They're vastly different experiences, of course, and I can see why fans of one have difficulty appreciating the other, but it's not a problem for me. I'd much rather have my sporting life be a many-course tasting menu than one massive serving of the same thing, so I find the varianced appealing rather than alienating.
Oh, and the other thing about soccer that doesn't appear in the Slate article: it's really, really fun. To a large extent the World Cup isn't about the players or the games at all; it's just an excuse to have an enormous party to which the entire world (including, increasingly, Americans) is invited. This is why it's still a fantastic experience even if your team crashes out: even if you support Costa Rica or Poland you can still be part of the fun. However badly the US played against the Czechs, I wouldn't have missed being on the scene Gelsenkirchen for the world.