Soccerheads? | Bush says, ‘We’re beginning to understand’


Bild editor Diekmann shows President Bush the official World Cup ball in the Oval Office last week. “So, how does it work, Kai?” (Bild am Sonntag)

Washington | U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently embarked on a mission of soccer diplomacy (see Apr 4). Now President George Bush has shared his own views in an interview with German tabloid Bild am Sonntag, timed to the Washington visit of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor.

The last question from Bild editor Kai Diekmann on May 5 concerned the coming World Cup finals. Diekmann asked about the tournament’s importance and Bush’s prediction on a victor. Wisely, the president declined to answer the second half, but he gave a personal account of his own relationship to the sport:

[M]ost Americans, up until recently, didn’t understand how big the World Cup is. And we’re beginning to understand. And the reason why is, a lot of us grew up not knowing anything about soccer, like me. I never saw soccer as a young boy. We didn’t play it where I was from. It just didn’t exist. I can’t even—I’m thinking about all the—between age six, when I can remember sports, and 12 or 13, I just never saw soccer being played.

Grahame Jones, soccer writer for the Los Angeles Times, does a blistering job deconstructing the president’s reply, which likely would mirror that of many from his generation. Jones observes that Bush remains blissfully ignorant of the rich soccer traditions of New Haven, Connecticut, where Bush the Younger was born, as well as the similarly rich heritage of Texas, where Bush was governor. “[I]t is not, as Bush told Bild am Sonntag, that ‘the sport just didn’t exist,’ ” Jones writes. “It is simply that, like so many other Americans brought up on a diet of football, baseball and basketball, he has opted to ignore it.”

While Bush said he was “confident that the German people will do a magnificent job of welcoming people from around the world,” lawmakers on Capitol Hill used Merkel’s visit to air fears that Germany would be too welcoming. Members of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations on May 4 heard testimony from six advocates for victims of human trafficking. They focused on reports that between 30,000 and 60,000 women, primarily from Eastern Europe, would be exploited as sex workers during the monthlong tournament (view the webcast). Prostitution is legal in Germany, which authorities claim make it easier to control.

Juliette Engel, director of the MiraMed Institute in Moscow, said the charity had received more than 500 calls in the past few months

from young women and their concerned families about various offers to work as waitresses, hostesses, advertising models, cooks and cleaning personnel at the World Cup. … [T]hat expenses for travel and housing in Germany will be deducted from the women’s earnings as well as … that the jobs are offered without work permits are clear indicators that the activity going on before our eyes is trafficking of Russian women and girls to serve in the World Cup brothels.

In a rhetorical flourish, Engel charged the German government with acting “as an official ‘pimp’ ” for the tournament; the event, she added, “is a human rights disaster in the making.” Subcommittee chairman Chris Smith (R–New Jersey) said Bush would raise the issue with the German chancellor.

We have not yet read an official German response, but there must be some irritation at this meddling from abroad. German media noted the hearing’s provocative title—“Germany’s World Cup Brothels.” With Bush’s comments that “some of us older guys are now beginning to understand the significance of the World Cup,” the sudden American concern, while justified, seems prurient.


Some of the subjects of Soccerhead. Left to right, Thomas “The Hammer” Waring, Ben Haner, Shelby Hammond, Kevin Guerrero and Bryan Basdeo of the College Park (Maryland) Hornets. (Copyright © Nick Waring)

Signs do exist that Americans are becoming more reflective about the sport. Even Bush’s comments seem encouraging for the mere fact that he has some thoughts on the subject. Jim Haner, author of Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey into the Heart of the American Game, published last month, uses the book not just to chronicle his youth-coaching exploits but to mull cultural differences and soccer’s relationship to American notions of fair play. In an extended excerpt appearing in the Washington Post Magazine, Haner writes:

[I]n this game, as in life, bumps and scrapes and setbacks are expected as cosmic forces unfurl, and the immigrant soccer fans seem to have faith that the leveling hand of God will set things mostly right in the end.

Not so their native-born neighbors. Almost nothing about soccer conforms to American conceptions about sports—or life in general. For one thing, you can’t use your hands, which makes everything else more difficult. For another, there’s only so much you can do with your feet to make a speeding ball behave rationally. Efficiency and expediency, which might as well be lyrics in the National Anthem, are stymied at every turn. By necessity, legality becomes a much more fluid concept, based on snap interpretations of 17 bright line “laws”—which date to the 19th century—by referees who are beyond the checks and balances of instant replay or umpire conferences. For Americans, with their vestigial Puritan morality, their ornate codes of conduct and their Constitutional entitlement to be secure in their personal space, watching their kids play this immoral game can provoke a spontaneous infarction.


The cover of Wangerin’s book shows Pelé shunning the pom-poms during his NASL years.

We are not sure we subscribe to such generalities, but Haner’s anecdotal evidence amuses. Weekend Financial Times columnist Gary Silverman offered a similar take on May 6, writing that Americans remain fascinated with sports in which balls fly into the air; soccer, he says, is more earthbound. Soccer deals with limitations and is “rooted in reality,” while most Americans want “more home runs, more touchdown passes, more slam dunks—more images of flight, if not outright transcendence” (article not available online).

Americans are not the only ones interested in examining soccer’s fit in national culture. U.K. football magazine When Saturday Comes this week releases its own book, Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game. Author David Wangerin indulges in some of the recently generated nostalgia for the North American Soccer League by combing for details from the league’s past. An excerpt appears in the magazine’s May issue. The worst NASL nickname? Perhaps the Jaws of San Diego. More important, though, Wangerin writes that the NASL had cultural influence in that “newspapers across the country … carried NASL results and wrote features on college and high-school teams, printing photos invariably captioned with a reference to players ‘getting their kicks.’ ”

To George Bush’s surprise, he can read that Connecticut had a team, based at his alma mater, Yale, following a move from Hartford. Their nickname? The Bicentennials. Texas had the Dallas Tornado and Houston Hurricane. As the Los Angeles Times‘s Jones writes of Bush’s deficient soccer memory, though, “no blame attaches” to having forgotten those names.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (5)

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  1. Brian says:

    “Americans remain fascinated with sports in which balls fly into the air; soccer, he says, is more earthbound.”

    Obviously, he’s never watched traditional English soccer, which has a strong influence on American soccer.

  2. Brian says:

    I should add that, fortunately, the Latin American influence on American soccer is increasing and (with the exception of its propensity toward diving) will hopefully minimize the English influence.

  3. Steve Gonzales says:

    Wow, you and Grahame Jones of the LA Times certainly harbor a lot of anger toward the President simply because he is not a soccer fan. Though, in your heart of hearts, I’m betting those boiling emotions emanate from deeply felt political differences, rather than any “true” resentment toward the President for the “crime” of not being a soccer fan. But that is the beauty of freedom—we are allowed to choose the pursuits which most interest us.

    Of course, as much as I love soccer, even I can … admit that the President is in the mainstream of America on this issue. Most Americans are not soccer fans. Harboring anger toward people for not following soccer only hurts you—it doesn’t hurt them. After all, while you’re busy hyperventilating … non-soccer fans are probably enjoying watching a good baseball game, or something.

  4. Soccer in German-American Relations…

    1. Celebrating German-American Friendship!The Berlin chapter of the Fulbright Alumni invites everybody to a German-American Soccer World Cup Game Watching Party for the match USA vs. Italy. The party will start on Saturday, June 17th, 8:00 pm at Rock B…

  5. Cedric White says:

    Who cares if the President isn’t a soccer fan! Obsessing over the fact of whether or not he watched a soccer game in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1966 is pathological. If you publicly held your ex-girlfriend to such a standard of what she was watching in 1975, or 1983, a judge would issue a restraining order against you and Mr. Jones.

    In the ancient Greek Olympics, warriors lay down their weapons and placed war on hiatus, in order to engage each other in sports.

    Ironically, in 2006, it’s the anti-war LA Times writer and anti-war blogger who refuse to let go of politics, and remain clutching onto their weapons.

    If the President chooses to watch baseball, instead, that is his choice. You do believe in freedom of choice, right? Let it go, breathe deeply, and enjoy the beautiful game of soccer.

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