“The Star Spangled Banner” will ring out Saturday in Rustenburg, South Africa. Its words will be softly sung or mouthed by millions across the world. And we can be sure that its message will reach its intended audience. Our ode to American perseverance against the British will be sung to the ears of the countless English watching across the globe. Their team and fans will stand there, on land the British Empire once ruled, outnumbered by former colonists, subjected to the poetry of British defeat.
What will go through their heads is unclear. For most, it may be brash confidence, the sort of misguided English swagger that surrounds their perpetually-falling-short national soccer team. They did, after all, invent the sport, something they’re loath to let anyone forget. But I hope that in some, there is a twinge of fear rattling in behind that façade of imperial superiority. I hope that for one second, the words “Nineteen Fifty” creep into the fringe of their minds.
Soccer fan or not, the World Cup, which starts Friday, is probably on your radar by this point. The amount of media coverage, time devoted on ESPN, and presence of commercials has been ratcheted up this time. For whatever reason, though, soccer provokes a surprisingly strong response from its detractors. That's unfortunate, as there are so few opportunities for a common nationwide experience, and they are most often catastrophic like 9/11 or JFK’s assassination. The World Cup seems like a perfect, and harmless, opportunity. As opposed to the fragmented Olympics, with dozens of ongoing events, there is only a single team to get behind, each match able to receive undivided attention. A passive watcher can choose to get close to the consistent cast of characters, or take the long view, treat the players as a monolith bearing the U.S. flag, and watch the little guys in red, white, and blue run around.
For a whole host of reasons—detailed in books like Andrei Markovits’ Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism—soccer has never fully caught on here, constantly being viewed as an invading alien entity. And, unfortunately, the hype propagated by soccer fans in this country isn’t all that appealing. If you’re not presented with the right story, you not only won’t be compelled to watch, you may turn against it altogether. And you’re getting the wrong story.
The dirty secret is that despite looking like a great advantage, the scope of the event—and of world soccer—actually works against its current popularity. Look, if you follow any sports at all (and even if you don’t), you’ve been inundated with certain images about soccer. When I watch commercials like ESPN’s epic “United” promo, I get chills. But I’ve already bought in. If I hadn’t, I might hear the universally annoying Bono going on a self-righteous rant about how soccer is the one global language—the subtext being “If you aren’t part of it, you’re out of touch.”
Now, couple that ad with Nike’s “Write the Future” spot, which showcases the way several countries react to their superstar making—hypothetical—World Cup history. I’ve watched it a thousand times to get excited. But really, if you’re not a soccer fan, it just drives the image of a bunch of foreigners you’ve never heard of—not one American star. Even a truly fantastic, must-read article like Spencer Hall’s declaration that the World Cup is the last remaining outpost of utopia hammers home the one, globalized world ideal.
But sports are supposed to be a release, a means to get away from the heady anxieties of globalization, not bury ourselves with it. Soccer is a world where America is just another nation competing—a mediocre one at that. It’s governed by ludicrous international bureaucracies of the sort that Americans can’t stand (just read Hall’s take on FIFA’s president). The world is passing, your job is getting shipped overseas, and to top it all off, they’re making you like their sports, too. I get it. Soccer is a surrender of sovereignty to the rest of the world.
The “one world” crap, as much as I like the commercials, isn’t the way they talk about it anywhere else, and shouldn’t be the way you hear about it here. Soccer is not some universal language, it’s a provincial tongue. It’s about your beefs and histories, not some global harmony bullshit. It’s about rooting against Germany because of World Wars I and II. It’s about rooting against North Korea because of right now. It’s about rooting against France because of the French. And it’s about rooting against England because they tried to oppress us a long time ago, we owned them when we used to fight wars, and we don’t get to bring those up all that often (plus, you know losing to us would drive them crazy).
On June 29, 1950, the universally-accepted greatest upset in the history of sports occurred.The heavily-favored English, the creators of the sport, somehow lost 1-0 to a ragtag crew of semi-professionals from the U.S.A. This was so stunning that newspapers assumed the 1-0 was a typo and declared England the victor 10-0 or 10-1. The English didn’t even make it out of the first round.
If you feel like soccer is somehow foreign, know that the U.S. has a firm place in soccer lore. Know that the U.S. was one of the first places to play soccer outside England and has since the 1880s. This Saturday, the U.S. team gets another chance at the history books, another chance to remind England, “Don’t tread on me.” Be there. Be a part of what could be a major moment, a turning point in U.S. sports. And, God willing, at the end of a glorious U.S. victory, you’ll be able to hear, faintly, thousands of people chanting, “Nine-teen fif-ty!”