Soccer bashers and advocates for soccer often take on roles in the United States resembling bickering marriage partners, rehearsing old lines and grievances in a zero-sum debate in which the game acquires the capacity to corrupt or to save. Guardian Unlimited writer Steven Wells (see 31 Oct 07) compiles a roster of the sport’s critics, including some unexpected voices from academia, and adds an important observation often missing in the meaningless discussion over whether soccer will displace American games (“The Truth the Soccerphobes Refuse to Face,” Jan 17).
Again, Wells has done wonders for traffic counters on Guardian servers, generating 301 comments in roughly 100 hours since the article has been online. Lost in the ranting about the game that passes for sports chatter is a significant comment about soccer’s cultural penetration—a point neglected in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, the 2001 study by Andrei Markovits and Steven Hellerman that evaluates soccer’s failure to achieve “major sport” status in North America. In contrast to the blinkered perspective that sees soccer as potential usurper, with baseball and gridiron football the victims, Wells writes of aspects of the soccer culture that go unremarked because they have become so mundane:
[S]occer is infused into American mainstream culture—into its movies, sit-coms, cartoon strips and novels. Into the warp and weave of everyday American life. In some places the black-and-white-panelled soccer ball decal is nearly as ubiquitous as the stars and stripes flag. Soccer is as American as McDonald’s Apple Pie.
As in American political debates, few participants in the conversation bother to define their terms. What are the standards by which we should judge soccer’s presence in American life? By television ratings? By number of participants? By the quantity of soccer-playing figurines in fast-food giveaways?
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Deford doesn’t use the phrase “Lynn, you ignorant slut,” but the set-piece nature of the NewsHour conversation recalls the 1970s Saturday Night Live satire involving Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd.
The need for firm opinion obscures that the views proffered almost always are anecdotal, originating from a slant on the world into which soccer fits as another masked terrorist. The two participants in a NewsHour conversation following the 2006 World Cup (“America’s Interest in Soccer Perks This Year after the World Cup,” 10 Jul 06)—sportswriter Frank Deford and Soccer America publisher Lynn Berling-Manuel—rehearse a tired dialogue.
Deford discounts American interest in the 2006 World Cup: “This is a blip on the scene, and it will be gone. This is like the Ice Capades come to town, and everybody goes to see the ice show. And a week later, it’s all forgotten.” Berling-Manuel seems to set parity with America’s “big three” sports as soccer’s ultimate aim, but fails to ask why such mythical equivalence should remain a desire in an Internet age of cultural blending and infinite choice. Interviewer Ray Suarez provides the voice of reason:
[Y]ou’ve both been talking … in very different terms about some of the same things: about the hype; about the building up of expectations. And maybe it’s just where you’re setting the bar for what constitutes success that’s different. … [M]aybe soccer has reached a sort of middle level, to become a niche interest sport in the United States that will be self-sustaining as a business and will find its place and its audience in a steady state kind of way, rather than becoming one of the major sports in the United States.