Soccer and U.S. National Identity: A Complex Relationship

Jan Kotowski's picture


Ever heard of John Brooks? Soccer can produce the unlikeliest of “national heroes,” even in the United States. The thrilling victory of the United States Men’s National Team (or “USMNT” as it is indeed often referred to because it lacks a proper nickname) against Ghana on Monday was the most-watched men’s soccer match ever on the ESPN and Univision networks. Millions of Americans followed the match at home, in bars, at outdoor viewing parties, and on location in Brazil. President Obama cheered the team on Vine and many celebrities expressed their support on Twitter (which apparently has become the chief medium of the “global public sphere”). The day after the match, more than half of all U.S. newspapers had a picture of the game on their front page. In short, today it seems like soccer actually matters in the U.S.

On the other hand, a recent poll found that 60 percent of Americans are not interested in soccer. Somewhat surprisingly, that number isn’t actually all that much higher than the ones of soccer powerhouses such as France and England, but it is very high nonetheless. The current American soccer craze is thus rather typical in that the World Cup – because of both increased media coverage and the “national parties” it produces – is making people interested in the spectacle of an international competition rather than in the sport itself. Having said that, soccer is slowly becoming more entrenched in the U.S. sports landscape, even though it still seems light years away from challenging the four established “American” team sports (“football,” baseball, basketball, and (ice) hockey).

While it is certainly fair to speak of a certain normalization regarding soccer as a major sport in the U.S. – especially from a historical perspective – the issue also continually opens up fascinating perspectives for debating and understanding U.S. national identity. Here, I am not so much referring to the “seas of red, white, and blue” and the reflexive patriotism (“U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”) produced by the World Cup, as these kinds of celebrations are not significantly different from those in other countries. Instead, my focus will be on the specificities of the “identity talk” [PDF] engendered through the tournament in the U.S. public sphere.

First, it is fascinating to see how the USMNT is being marketed as a national institution. The official slogan of U.S. Soccer’s social media campaign reads “one nation, one team.” During the team’s recent match with Azerbaijan one could also see a Spanish translation of the slogan: “una nación, un equipo.” Clearly, U.S. Soccer is trying hard to fully tap the vast resource of Hispanic soccer fans, but herein lays a potential minefield of dual allegiances – one that can perhaps only be bridged by the powers of consumerism (and French fries).

As mentioned in my first post, there exists a phenomenon I like to call the “style of play–national identity–nexus.” Team USA coach and German soccer legend Jürgen Klinsmann has been talking about the need for the U.S. to “discover a national identity” and create a corresponding style of play ever since he took the job in 2011. While the idea of fast, proactive, and attacking soccer is certainly appreciated by many American fans, Klinsmann’s more recent comments that the U.S. could not realistically be expected to win the World Cup and that U.S. sports culture was too protective of aging superstars were seen a s decidedly un-American by some observers. In a jingoistic outburst, influential journalist Michael Wilbon even told Klinsmann to “get out of America.”

Such episodes can tell us a lot about soccer’s ongoing struggles for acceptance in the United States. In this regard, one can also learn a lot from little thoughtless pieces on the internet that make up for their lack of insight by providing handy lists of lazy stereotypes. Americans allegedly don’t watch soccer because:

“1. We already have a sport called football. 2. None of our friends care about soccer. 3. We don’t have any huge soccer stars to root for. 4. We’re not that good at soccer. 5. We didn’t invent soccer. 6. We were forced to play soccer as a kid. 7. We can’t deal with all the flopping in soccer.”

Regarding the last point, one can now also find advice from casual American observers on how to improve the game, e.g., by Americanizing it through the introduction of video review à la NFL.

Points 1 and 5 are clearly concerned with one of the core issues within the context of constructing, debating, and formulating national identities: authenticity. In a scathing piece in the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Clegg recently accused American soccer fans of being phonies, deriding their obsessions with the European and Latin American cultures of the game as an “elaborate affectation.”  Now, this kind of hipsterish overcompensation certainly exists, but at the heart of this struggle for authenticity lie the foreign, i.e., un-American, roots of soccer. A more measured piece in the New York Times concluded that U.S. soccer fan culture “is a matter of style, but also a matter of something deeper that speaks to how [the fans], and the country, define themselves.”

To be sure, there also still exists plenty of open hostility to soccer in the U.S. In what seemed like a calculated provocation (or simply “click bait”), Politico Magazine recently published Stephen H. Webb’s decidedly unfunny piece “Why Soccer is Un-American.” His explanation is uniquely steeped in old-fashioned American exceptionalism:

“Sports are a reflection of national character and aspirations, and it is no coincidence, I think, that soccer has had a hard time catching on in the United States. Simply put, soccer—call it “football” if you must—is a tragic game, and thus it cuts deeply against the grain of the American ethos. Americans are an optimistic people. We like scoring too much to enjoy a game that is more about preventing success than achieving it.”

Interestingly, opposition to soccer knows no political boundaries, as it is shared by liberals like Keith Olbermann and conservative immigration restrictionists like Mark Krikorian, who called soccer “a game for children and foreigners.”

Yet, these voices no longer define the mainstream of American sports culture. It is certainly true that the game remains foreign or uninteresting to many Americans who do not like to have soccer “shoved down their throats” by Europeans and Latin Americans. As such, soccer may even strengthen ideas of American exceptionalism. But, crucially, the ongoing normalization of soccer within the U.S. sports landscape – backed by Disney and Comcast’s TV milions – has forced America to come to terms with the “foreign game.” Nowhere was this more visible than in a short video essay that aired during ESPN’s World Cup coverage. In Jeremy Schaap’s rhetorical firework of historical clichés and national symbolism, the versatility of national identity, its chameleon-like quality to adapt to ever-changing circumstances becomes particularly well visible:

"The game isn’t in our blood. It’s not part of our national DNA. It’s not our pastime, nor our passion. It belongs not to us, but to the world. […] Its striving is exactly what makes our national soccer team so authentically American; its spirit as early-American as the America of the founding fathers, of the underdog struggling against the powers of the old world, trying to beat them at their own game. Like America itself, it is a mosaic of different races, ethnicities, even languages, all pulling together – pluribus – then, when it matters most – unum. They’re not a superpower, not a colossus, not the Dream Team, but instead, much more interestingly, a team of dreamers."

Call it ironic, but even in the United States it seems impossible for soccer to escape from the powers of nationalism and national identity.