Sunday, June 27, 2010

Soccer and world politics

Bill Plaschke, writing for the LA Times, tries to convince America that we should stop coddling our soccer team and start expecting more of them. He convinced me, at least. I, probably like most Americans, had no idea our team was as good as it is. We're always led by the media to believe that they're the perpetual underdogs, forever destined to mediocrity in the great, world-unifying sport of soccer.

In short, I think America's view of our soccer team is a reflection of our own world view. Yes, we love our football, baseball, and basketball, but those are sports of our own making. It's okay to excel at them, because they're our games, and it's understandable we would do well. Especially since we're the only ones who really play them. Other countries may play similar games, but they inevitably change the rules to suit their own fancies (and ensuring they won't have to face the expectation of being able to challenge the Americans).

Not so with soccer. Soccer is the rest  of the world's game, and America is a late-comer to the party. We should not expect too much of our team because, for all our American exuberance and enthusiasm, we're still young upstarts on the world stage (never mind that most countries in the world, as they exist today, are younger than America--it's our culture that is young and always will be). The part of America that cares at all what other countries think of us feels that we have much to apologize for, including not enthroning soccer at the center of the sports universe like so many other countries do.

Don't get me wrong. America has made our share of mistakes in our relatively short history. But being America isn't one of them. While much of the world contributed to the cause of World War II, it was America that proved to be the solution. Look up to European culture, intellect, and history all you want, but that same culture, intellect, and history is what bred the Third Reich, allowed it to grow unchecked, and then nearly succumbed to it. America, typically late to the party, pulled the rest of the world's fat out of the fire.

That same world has resented us for that, and has resented us for not allowing them to put the blinders back on again and go back to their cultured, intellectual lives. America called the spade of Communism a spade and refused to let the rest of the world ignore it. We seem to remember our lessons a bit longer than the rest of the world. Yes, we made our mistakes. Yes, we had our Vietnam. But without us, the world would have done...well, pretty much the same things they do today, with a few exceptions: drag their feet, hem, haw, and throw up a barricade of red tape to keep from having to actually stand up to the hydra heads of fascism. "Yes, we're against it in principle and all, but who are we to judge? One man's fascist is another man's liberating hero, etc. And shame on you, America, for always being about such things!"

Unfortunately, a continuous diet of anti-American sentiment and cultural criticism has taken its toll on the segment of America who believe that it is better to be liked than to be respected (or worse yet, right). They've grown increasingly embarrassed at the rest of the country's refusal to do obeisance to the world's superior culture and open-mindedness. They blanch at the continued audacity of labeling our baseball championships a world series (though really, who but the Japanese can challenge any American team? Who but the Japanese even play a version of baseball even close to what we have?). They want to crawl into a deep hole every time an American president goes all "cowboy" on a foreign fascist state. And one way they can atone for being American is to downplay our team's performance in the one, highly-visible sport we have come to share with the rest of the world.

As Plaschke rightly points out, Americans have been playing organized soccer for over 30 years now. While that's certainly not as long as other countries, it's plenty of time for a country of our population, talent pool, and monetary resources (not to mention love of just about any sport that comes along, as evidenced by the sudden interest in lacrosse) to become a world competitor. And, though most Americans probably don't know it, the American team was ranked 14th in the world coming into the World Cup. By all rights our inclusion in the final 16 teams should have been a foregone conclusion, not some amazing Miracle-on-Ice moment. The fact that our team (which has appeared in six straight World Cup tournaments) lost to Ghana (ranked 32nd, and appearing for their second time) should be cause for heads rolling when they return, not "Better luck next time" head-pats. Ghana was the underdog here, not the US!

So for Americans to get so worked up over our team's amazing World Cup run is at best ignorance, and at worse a reverse-psychology ploy by our cultural apologists to cover their embarrassment that we darn Americans are trying to excel again. By acting as if our winning a World Cup would take a miracle they send a message to the rest of the world: Pay no attention to those players on the field. They don't know better. The more enlightened of us know we aren't deserving of actually winning against our obvious superiors. This is, after all, your game, not ours, so we have no business rising to dominance. I'm sure our players will realize that eventually if you'll just be patient with them.

I don't have a problem with America not being the best in every sport. We're not, and quite frankly, I cheered for the opponents of our last Olympic "Dream Team". America should never dominate just because it's our right to. Inventing the game has nothing to do with it. We have to earn it like everyone else. But it runs both ways. If we should  ever become a world soccer powerhouse, then good for us! We shouldn't have to apologize for being better. We shouldn't have to enfeeble our team by purposely skewing or ignoring the facts.

Nor should America have to apologize for having a different moral compass than the rest of the world--or perhaps for even having one at all. For all their disdain for America's superpower status, who is the first country they look to when they decide that somebody should do something about problem X over there? They want us to play world police and clean up the world's messes, and they want to simultaneously criticize and complain about us the entire time we're doing so. It saves them having to risk their resources and troops in getting it done, and allows them deniability later on: "No, no, we didn't want America to do that to you! Didn't you hear how much we badmouthed them and tried to talk them out of it?!"

Some day their plan is going to work too well. I believe it is already starting to. Tired of being continually beat up for doing what's right, we won't be there someday when the really need us. If Russia re-conquers eastern Europe and Iran turns the middle-east into a sea of glass and cuts off the world's oil supply they'll perhaps wish they hadn't played the game so well. But they'll be able to take consolation from the fact that the Americans never won a World Cup.

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