wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Friday, June 16, 2006

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.


Anonymous Soccer Dad said...

Its like these reporters who usually know little about soccer need to make stuff up. You have to be an intellectual hippie to like soccer? Are they kidding? You want to talk about a sport that draws a melting pot of fans - soccer is it. I've seen guys you'd expect cheering American football going nuts at a real football match. Kids of all ages. You name it.

We all like soccer for different reasons, but tryign to pigeon-hole people like that is just stupid.

I used to read Slate religiously, but haven't in a while. I can see why!

8:39 AM, June 16, 2006

Blogger SMELLRAT said...

I really liked this article until I got to the line: "Plus, if you don't root for your native country first and foremost, you're a total poser." That stopped me cold. What!? Please explain yourself. I can't imagine how you'd defend that line, but I'd love to hear you try. Really . . . please explain to me why I should support us soccer when it's a bunch of camp-spoiled rich boys playing kids from gutters and ghettos. You'd honestly root for a bunch of rich kids over Angola or Ivory Coast? Please. I'd rather root for a coal miner's son than a banker's.
And as to the Galeano quib, if there's been a prettier line written about soccer, please lemme know.
So many other good points in this article . . .

6:31 AM, June 17, 2006

Blogger SMELLRAT said...

Seems neither you nor Slate touched on another type fan: the person who plays the game addictively. I never watched or cared about soccer until I started playing it. It healed my back, rejuvinated my life. My loyalty is to the game itself, which allows me to walk without pain, to play with my son, and to enjoy life. So, no offense, but as ee cummings (a intellectual hater himself) stated: I will not kiss your fucking flag."

I have friends who have to gamble on sports to enjoy viewing them. I think they have a lot in common with the super patriotic fans. They don't love the game, they love the drama.

One last note on nationalism, I like to think there were plenty of Germans in '36 secretely rooting for Jesse Owens. In other words, I don't think this is great time for flag wearing in America. I mean, if you're reading things besides sports pages. Check out Rawstory.com, for a good start. Might dampen your patriotism a bit.

7:22 AM, June 17, 2006

Blogger DF said...

Ah, yes, Rat, this post rests on the difference between two main kinds of soccer fans (and between our approaches to the game). These two types are the rooter (me) and the aestheticist (you).

The rooter pulls for a particular team to win any game (so is never really a neutral) and derives pleasure (or pain) from the game insofar as their team of choice does well (or poorly). By contrast, the aestheticist pulls for a high-quality (i.e., technically skilled) game rather than a particular side. You can be a bit of each, but at bottom you're one or the other.

So when I say that if you root for other than your native country you're a poser, of course I'm talking about the first kind of fan (aestheticists, after all, don't really root for any team, except perhaps out of appreciation for the quality of their play).

The poser I'm objecting to is the guy who abandons their country to pick a team that's more successful. If you're from Latvia but you spurn them to root for Brazil, that kind of undermines the whole notion of loyalty that lies at the core of the idea of rooting for a team.

I also strongly resist the notion that some teams can be reduced to "camp-spoiled rich boys" while others can be fairly described as nothing but tough kids from the streets. People level this accusation at the US a lot, but it doesn't really describe Eddie Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley. Plus, if we're going to root only for players who are appealing, then we're going to have to do full on background checks on all the players on a team. What if that blond guy from Argentina is descended from Nazis? That's no good. Or what if that defender for Serbia contributed to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia? Also a problem.

My point is that the myths people make up to root for teams are just that: myths. We don't have enough information to really know who the good guys and the bad guys are (if it's even possible to say a player is "good" or "bad").

So I choose a mechanical rule of thumb instead: when I was a kid and loved baseball, I rooted for the Dodgers because I'm from LA. When I got into soccer, I was living in DC so I followed United. I'm born in the US so I support the USMNT.

Nor do I think every invocation of national identity amounts to nationalism in its most objectionable form. Rooting for a country (at least as I do it) is just a product of coincidence. If I'd been born in der Schweiz, or Cote d'Ivoire, or whatever, I'd root for those teams instead. Although some people (the English, especially) tend to equate supporting their team with running other countries down, I just don't think it's necessary.

Finally, my objection to the Galeano quote is twofold. First, I'm a rooter not an aestheticist so I just don't relate, and it strikes me as a bit overwrought. Second, it's so overused as to be a cliche. I see it on soccer blogs, in soccer discussion boards, quoted ad nauseam in soccer writing, and I think there's even a website that incorporates the "pretty move" language.

11:37 AM, June 18, 2006


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