Oct 19, 2007

Let's Settle This: No, Soccer Is Not Un-American

Yes, this again. Culture of Soccer had to go there. I don't know why, especially seeing as they base their arguments on a book that came out 12 years ago. Actually, check that: they don't really take a stand on this issue, choosing instead to just introduce these decade-old views and leave it to us to decide. Fair enough. So let's decide then. Ready? Here goes:

There is absolutely nothing about soccer that is un-American. In fact, the sport is in many ways more American than games invented in the U.S. and considered quintessentially American, especially baseball. Yes, baseball. More on that in a minute. Let's first look at some of these soccer-is-un-American myths, as presented by Culture of Soccer:

1. Soccer is un-American because unlike baseball, basketball and (American) football, it wasn't invented in the U.S. First of all, I don't know if anybody "invented" soccer per se. Yes, the rules of the modern game were codified in England, presumably by Englishmen. The Magna Carta was also written in England. Should we credit them with inventing individual freedom? Of course not! That's an American invention! In all seriousness though, the concept of using parts of one's body other than the arms to put a ball in a goal has been around for centuries and transcended various cultures. Look at the Mayan ball game, for example, a millenia-0ld game that is said to be the basis for all "ball and goal" team sports, according to The Cradelboard Teaching Project. Something that was invented by Mayans is the concept of the bouncing, rubber ball. Early versions of European ball games were played with a leather ball that didn't bounce. A lot of fun that must have been.

And how "American" are those other sports anyway? Basketball was invented by a Canadian son of Scottish immigrants and our version of football is basically a derivative of rugby. There is even debate about whether baseball was even invented by (U.S.) Americans.
2. Soccer is not "offensive" enough to be American. With "offensive" I mean the American concept of "forward, forward, forward." So says Frank Deford in this article, also quoted by Culture of Soccer. Okay, so where exactly is that concept in baseball? That game is about running around basepaths--not forward. All U.S. sports involve the concept of a strong defense. And what about there not being enough scoring in soccer? Some of the best baseball games are "pitchers duels," where there is very little to no scoring and the action basically centers around two men: one guy throwing the ball, the other trying (and failing) to hit it. And this for three hours or more. At least soccer games are over in two hours.

3a. Soccer in the U.S. is only played by immigrants. Uh, isn't basically everybody an immigrant in the U.S.? Or are baseball, football and basketball really limited to Native Americans?

3.b. Xenophobes use soccer to describe why some immigrants have not yet "become Americans."
So now we're debating the wisdom of xenophobes? Xenophobes say a lot of things. How many of them are true? Are any?

4. Soccer is socialist: it's too egalitarian and involves too much collaboration. Every team sport involves collaboration. That's why they're called team sports. Star players have every opportunity to make a difference in a game of soccer that they do in American sports. The one exception maybe is basketball, for purely mathematical reasons (five players in the game for each team). Football involves far more players than soccer; not only do you have offensive and defensive units, but different players are constantly being cycled in and out, often on each play. Soccer is limited to three substitutions per game, and once a player comes out he can't go back in.

Besides, if soccer is socialist, then baseball and football are fascist: decision-making is rested in one individual (the pitcher in baseball, the quarterback in football). The team's fortunes are dependent, for the most part, on that individual's talent, guile, force of will and power of personality. And let's not forget the role coaches play in those sports: they basically diagram and architect every play! The players on the field simply execute their game plan. Real American, that. In baseball, the players often don't even make any decisions. What pitch to throw, whether to swing or bunt or take the pitch, whether to steal a base, where to position oneself defensively--those are all decided by the manager from the dugout. Soccer, on the other hand, is purely spontaneous from the run of play. All the coach does is decide who to put on the field. The rest is up to the players. Sounds pretty democratic to me!
5. Soccer is a girly sport. It may be true that more women play the sport in the U.S. than men (though I'm not sure of the actual statistic). Maybe that's where this myth comes from. Or maybe because soccer is perceived as non-physical. But again, let's look at baseball. Other than being able to throw the ball at a dude's head (and then, in the American League at least, avoid retaliation by virtue of the DH rule) where exactly is the physicality in baseball? And basketball is technically a non-contact sport. In soccer, you are allowed far more contact with the ball-carrier than in basketball, where the rules state that any physical contact be whistled with a foul call. Okay, so soccer players aren't a bunch of juiced-up meatheads who can bench press a million pounds. Instead they're just slimmed-down meatheads who can run a million miles. Either way, these discussions of masculinity are subjective and better left to a really masculine magazine like GQ or Men's Fitness or somebody else who cares about these things.
6. Americans are not good at soccer. I'm assuming they mean American men, as the women's national team has won world championships and Olympic tournaments. Well, Americans haven't done much recently in basketball on the world stage either. Or in baseball. Or hockey. OK, Canadian sport. But I don't get how this makes the sport un-American either. Isn't the American spirit to compete at something until we succeed, no matter the obstacles? I think so, and I'm American. What's this cut-and-run talk? We aren't good at it so why bother? And just look how far we've come in the past generation: In the 1980s, American soccer was literally a joke. Now, our national team is stacked with players from the best European leagues and we tied the eventual world champions in last summer's (otherwise forgettable, from a U.S. perspective) World Cup. We're not quite world class yet, but we're not a joke either. And we're improving: some of our best players are young and have yet to hit their prime.

Even Culture of Soccer thinks it's only a matter of time before the U.S. becomes a world power in soccer. They don't think that will make a difference, however, as even a world cup victory won't convert many of the supposed soccer-haters in this country. I actually agree with them there. But for a different reason: by the time the U.S. wins a world cup, there won't be anybody left in need of converting.


  1. Just to clarify: I'm not saying soccer is un-American. I'm just saying that there are several arguments for why people have claimed it is so. I don't think soccer is un-American at all. I love the sport, as I hope my blog demonstrates in some small way.

  2. Nicely done.

    Sooner or later I'm going to work up my manifesto on why I think Soccer is better off staying out of the mainstream in this country, and that it can thrive despite the best efforts of those who hate (fear) it.

  3. Agree w/ the post -- great stuff.

    You missed one classic argument, however within #6: that Soccer in the US will never be popular at the national level, and the US Men's team will not be competitive internationally b/c our best athletes don't chose soccer -- they choose Football & Basketball primarily. Deford made this comment several times in the past.

    The reality is that our best LARGE athletes choose Football and our best Tall athletes basketball. Our best midsized athletes chose a wide variety of sports.

    Arguing for the success of the US at the international level (forget about popularity for the moment).

    If our best athletes go into these two sports (and Baseball perhaps), how does the anti-soccer crowd explain the USA's success in Track and Field, gymnastics, Ice Skating, swimming, Volleyball and such less popular sports?

    How did we beat the Russians at Hockey in the 1980 Olympics if our best athletes were busy with Basketball and Football? How do we produce the world's best sprinters, Decathaletes, gymnists, swimmers, Tennis players (historically), and occasionally gold-medal wrestlers?

    When was the last time a swim meet sold 20,000 seats like Galaxy v Fire yesterday, much less 60,000 like a football game? Does it matter to Michael Phelps that the US didn't invent swimming? Will the lack of fan base affect his ability to break another world record? Does it matter to our success that swimming is one of the least popular sports in the US?

    Can we be a success at Soccer without fan participation that rivals NASCAR?

    Yes, we can. And it is because our best (mid sized) athletes are going into Soccer in droves. Don't we have more registered soccer players in the US than anyone else?

    Someday we will have our US Mens team enjoy success like the 1980 Olympic Hockey team.

  4. I am an american living in South America (Paraguay). Although I agree that the US mens team is not at the same level as the top 10 teams in the world, they have surely improved over the past years and have earned respect worldwide as a fairly good team that can tie or even win a game against a top team. Many Paraguayan and Argentine friends of mine have comented as to how good the americans played against Spain and Brazil last year at the finals of the Confederations Cup. Landon Donovan is considered an excellent player by many South Americans and Europeans. I hope that US soccer can quickly grow its fan base in the US to a level equal to that of American Football or Baseball and that the US can win the next World Cup in Brazil 2014. I will sure be there!!!! GO USA!!!!!!