Lure of the local | Passionate postmortems for the USA

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Even socked in by a tropical storm, scores still trickle in to be duly posted on the BBC wall chart.

Englewood, Florida | On holiday, near the one-time home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League and Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer, soccer and, specifically, the 2006 World Cup finals did not seem misplaced. Wait staff at a Tampa International Airport tavern did not object to tuning to the U.S.–Czech Republic in the first round, as long as you were stuffing your face with mahi-mahi. Others waiting for a lull in Tropical Storm Alberto set up camp, murmuring as the goals rained into the U.S. net.

Of course, no one wants to hear about a vacation that they have not taken themselves, so fast-forward to this afternoon, when, 10 days later, the Americans had been routinely dispatched from Group E. This represented a return to normal service, but freshly minted ESPN soccer pundits Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa—he of the 1970s-vintage heavy-metal hair, according to the July issue of When Saturday Comes—were up in arms. “Let me be the first to say it,” Wynalda mentioned, trying to keep his blood pressure down, “[U.S. coach] Bruce Arena screwed up this World Cup for the U.S.” Replacements for Arena were bandied: Carlos Queiroz, Frank Yallop, Jí¼rgen Klinsmann. Can Sven-Göran Eriksson‘s name be far behind? On and on it went, for one hour, the debating over tactics and team selection, who must be sacrificed, would the sport ever recover …

Has the U.S. finally joined the world? We were giddy. Surely this is more affirming testimony concerning the state of U.S. soccer than winning the World Cup. Grousing and discontent—this is the natural state of a soccer fan, of club or country. In our view—since our interest in the World Cup is seeing Arsenal players score as many goals as possible (and TomáÅ¡ Rosickí½‘s brace against the U.S. put two more in our satchel)—the Americans’ “Project 2010″ has been completed, four years ahead of schedule.

The extent of World Cup fever, in our ZIP code: A banner is placed outside a Decatur, Georgia, bistro.

How much more compelling the churlish barbs hurled toward midfielders missing in action and forwards past their prime than the bland commentary that started the World Cup finals, the domestic whine favored by columnists with the pictures by their names who ask, umpteen times, “Will the U.S. ever take an interest in this sport?” We found two examples without having to look: David Grimes in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune of southwest Florida, “Pull Out the Yellow Card: I Don’t Have Soccer Fever,” and Mark Wiedmer in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times/Free Press, “Most Americans Still Wary about World Cup.” In the latter sampling, Wiedmer spoke, by our count, to eight people before an outdoor Kenny Rogers concert at a popular Chattanooga venue. He seemed to prefer conversing with people wearing National Football League garb. Most were not that interested in soccer. We imagine the copy editor querying Wiedmer about the writer’s methodology before adding the headline: “So how many did you talk to, Mark? Eight? I’ll use ‘most’ in the headline then; if you had talked to seven, I would have to go with ‘many.’ ” (For an overseas perspective, although imported from the States, see Bill Center‘s treatment for the Times of London, “Americans Love Soccer—Once Every Four Years.”)

In 2010 we’ll be back on this treadmill: “Doesn’t anyone care about this game?” No one could ever assess the culture in totality, so such questions seem pointless. There are as many opinions on soccer as there are soccer bloggers these days. Speaking of which, equally discouraging is the surging tide of “blogs” from the rapidly consolidating Washington Post–Newsweek–Slate–McSweeney’sGranta–New Republic–New Yorker consortium, a development noticeable enough that Bryan Curtis, a Franklin Foer associate, called attention to the takeover of soccer by the “intellectual classes.” He wrote the piece, “Among the Brainiacs,” for Slate, so we’re talking about a tight-knit group; nevertheless, it only takes a few people to create a trend, especially folks on the same e-mail distribution list. Curtis quotes David Hirshey, occasional soccer writer for the New York Times and executive editor of HarperCollins—publisher of Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, a creation of this new intellectual bloc:

What you’re seeing now is the result of the gold rush of soccer in the 1970s, when Pelé came to America and made it cool for kids. Those kids have grown up to be McSweeney’s and Granta writers.

The perspectives are telling. Matt Weiland, coeditor of the Thinking Fan’s Guide, speaks of soccer players as looking “like someone who came to your last party and you didn’t get a chance to talk to.” We were trying to remember our last party, but it consisted mostly of fellow nine-year-olds. We went duckpin bowling. The three-headed on-site Slate blogging team, William Saletan, Tommy Craggs and Charles Duhigg (“Dispatches from the World Cup“), seems to move in the same orbit. Saletan mentions his Cambridge fellowship. Craggs compares the dress of American fans to Phi Delts.

So, when the World Cup is over, we’ll go back to weeping over our Atlanta Beat decals and remembering the Goodyear blimp that flew over our neighborhood soccer field once and all it foretold.

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 (2)

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  1. Brian says:

    The “I Don’t Care About the World Cup” whines in the US press are as predictable “The Ref Cost Us the Match” whines in other countries’ press. But the bottom line is that this Cup has had record ratings on ESPN and ESPN2 despite the matches being played during most adults’ workdays. And will the “Will the US ever care about soccer?” types bother to explain why, if there are hardly any fans of the sport, we have not one but two TV channels devoted solely to soccer?

  2. Ray Radlein says:

    If it’s any consolation, I weep over my Atlanta Beat decals, too (and my 30-year-old Tampa Bay Rowdies T-shirts, as well).

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