Wednesday 1 April ~
Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an apparently vitriolic opinion piece called “Soccer is Ruining America”. The author, a right-wing professor of religion and philosophy, said he wrote it tongue-in-cheek, in an attempt to “spoof the genre of angry white male polemics” and “satirize the idea that sports really matter”. But his joke was lost on most readers. No sport divides America so fiercely. The level of soccer-bashing may have fallen from its heyday, when the Cosmos filled stadiums to the bewilderment of the uninitiated, but cyberspace seems to have given the movement a fresh pair of lungs. There is also, still, a bewildering level of antipathy in high places.
When David Beckham signed for Los Angeles, ESPN polled its viewers not as to whether his arrival was a good thing, but whether they cared about it at all. It’s hard to imagine the same question being asked of an event in any other sport. With a few exceptions, the mainstream American media continues to regard the association game as a foreign entity. Fourteen years on, Major League Soccer’s footprint remains tiny (especially in cities where it isn’t played) and even the big international competitions are uniformly under-reported. Dispassionate observers – such as there are – argue that on America’s crowded sporting calendar a relatively late arrival like soccer can’t help but struggle for attention.
Yet at the same time, soccer-related tragedies – rioting, a bribery scandal, part of a stadium giving way – seem to arouse the sports desk’s interest in a way that even high-profile matches do not. This more subtle discrediting of the game may have largely replaced the approach of earlier generations, where journalists often passed judgment on soccer instead of reporting on it. Yet it reflects the same attitude. It seems not to matter that MLS is expanding, or that a fair number of Americans play in the big leagues overseas; far easier to ridicule David Beckham or prattle about some instinctive need for sport to be played with the hands.
What is gained from such cynicism, particularly in a country that largely disdains it, is difficult to fathom. The rank ignorance of previous generations has largely faded – there can’t be that many Americans who haven’t stumbled across a match or two – and the audience for the game has never been greater. More of the country tuned in to the last World Cup final than saw the deciding game of the World Series a few months later (a fact much of the media chose to ignore).
If, as the rednecks contend, soccer is all part of some international conspiracy to drive the world toward socialism, it has been lost on the likes of the Champions League; if it is only played by the effete, there would be no place for the likes of Brian McBride. Perhaps all that is needed is to let the adversaries scream themselves hoarse – and to allow a few more generations to pass. David Wangerin