Something about the soccer World Cup brings out the missionary in the mainstream media, and every four years they strive to bring the good news of "the beautiful game" to the ignorant American masses.
This year is no different. The 2010 World Cup is set to begin in South Africa on June 11. More than just covering the month-long event, the media are already doing their best to hype it, overstating its popularity in the United States and its potential appeal to U.S. sports fans. From Time magazine dedicating an entire issue to "The Global Game," to CBS's helpful "The World Cup Guide for Americans," the public is being brow-beaten to catch "World Cup Fever."
And while soccer partisans may try (mostly unsuccessfully) to score on point-by-point comparisons to baseball or football, the most compelling argument many media outlets can muster is, "The rest of the world loves it. We should too."
The liberal media have always been uncomfortable with "American exceptionalism" - the belief that the United States is unique among nations, a leader and a force for good. And they are no happier with America's rejection of soccer than with its rejection of socialism.
Hence Americans are "xenophobic," "isolated" and lacking in understanding for other nations and their passion for "the planetary pastime," as Time magazine put it. But, they are confident, as America becomes more Hispanic, the nation will have to give in and adopt the immigrants' game. On the other hand, the media assure the public that soccer is already "America's Game," and Americans are enthusiastically anticipating the World Cup, even though the numbers don't bear that contention out.
So, every four years they return with renewed determination to force soccer's square peg in the round hole of American culture.
Soccer is Popular, isn't it?
Time magazine is leading the "Ole's" for soccer this year, putting the World Cup on its cover and dedicating 10 articles to the sport in its June 14 issue.
One of those articles proclaimed in the headline, "Yes, Soccer Is America's Game." Author Bill Saporito argued that "soccer has become a big and growing sport."
"What's changed is that this sport and this World Cup matter to Americans," Saporito asserted. "These fans have already made the transition from soccer pioneers to soccer-literate and are gradually heading down the road to soccer-passionate."
Soccer is even in the White House, Saporito pointed out. President George W. Bush was a former co-owner of a baseball team. And although President Obama played basketball, his daughters play little league soccer, and current White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs played soccer in high school and college.
On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on June 3, host Joe Scarborough noted the importance of the World Cup to other countries, but explained that Americans just don't understand "what a huge sport this is." Still, he said hopefully, "It is a growing sport in America as well, isn't it?"
Growing, but not "huge" by any standard. The final game of the 2006 World Cup drew 16.9 million viewers in the United States. While that number may seem respectable, it pales in comparison with the 106 million viewers that tuned in to watch the 2010 Super Bowl. The final 2009 World Series game drew 22.3 million viewers, and 48.1 million tuned in to watch Duke beat Butler in the 2010 NCAA men's college basketball championship.
A look at game attendance figures is instructive, as well. According to Major League Soccer's MLS Daily, as of June 7, 2010, the highest drawing pro soccer team, the Seattle Sounders, averaged 36,146 attendees over seven home games. Conversely, the Seattle Mariners baseball team has averaged 25,314 over 32 home games.
The Mariners are dead last in the American League West division, and 24th in the league in batting average, 30th in home runs, 27th in RBIs and 25th in number of hits. In short, they're horrible. With a record of 4-5-3, the Sounders aren't very good either, but they play in a very liberal city, are currently benefiting from World Cup year interest in their sport, and they play a schedule that allows far fewer opportunities for fans to attend.
Another number is Hollywood box office. John Horn of The Los Angeles Times contemplated on June 6 about Hollywood's lack of a mainstream movie about soccer. In "Why is There No Great Hollywood Soccer Movie?" Horn pointed out that each sport has its own hit movie except soccer.
He explained that, "When 20th Century Fox adapted Nick Hornby's book ‘Fever Pitch,' [the film starred Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon] the subject sport was changed from soccer (the Arsenal Football Club) to baseball (the Boston Red Sox.)"
But aren't American kids playing soccer in huge numbers? After all, there's a sought-after (by liberals) voting demographic out there called "soccer moms." Yes, but as of 2009, soccer trailed baseball and basketball in terms of U.S. youth participation, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
And mass participation doesn't necessarily translate into lasting enthusiasm. That has to do with the reasons children play soccer in the first place. As both soccer's boosters and detractors have pointed out, at the youth level, it's easy, more about participation than competition. As Stephen H. Webb wrote at First Things last year, to contemporary American parents, "Baseball is too intimidating, football too brutal, and basketball takes too much time to develop the required skills ... Soccer is the perfect antidote to television and video games. It forces kids to run and run, and everyone can play their role, no matter how minor or irrelevant to the game."
Those aren't the qualities that inspire love of a sport, and many children stop playing when they reach adolescence.
But in a World Cup year, no contortion is too severe to convince Americans to accept the sport. For example, The June 6 "New York Times Magazine" featured a piece titled "Next-Gen American Soccer," a pictorial of young players it called "The potential face of the U.S. national team at future World Cups."
Meant to show that the United States already has excellent young talent, and that the future is bright for American soccer, the introductory text contradicted the intention. Explaining that the photographer had to travel to two European countries and two U.S. cities to shoot these up-and-comers, The Times wrote, "It's an itinerary that hints at another truth about American soccer talent: it's not only coming from abroad; at ever younger ages, it's also going abroad ... More than 200 prospects now playing in other countries would be eligible for the at next year's [Under]-20 World Cup. Ability and American citizenship are all that's required."
In other words, soccer is so popular in America that a good chunk of the nation's best young players go overseas to ply their trade. On the other hand, somewhere along the way these kids acquired U.S. citizenship, so they're going to carry our flag in future World Cups.
Why Should We Be Different?
As healthcare reform and stimulus spending have underscored, if Europe jumped off a cliff, the American left would be right behind it. So it makes sense that the media's main argument for accepting soccer is that "everybody's doing it."
In his Time article, Saporito quoted Seattle Sounder's owner Joe Roth. "Soccer is the only game played around the world," Roth explained. "We can't be that different than anyone else in the world."
Roth also told the LA Times' Horn that, "We're basically a xenophobic country and don't look at what's going on in the rest of the world as closely as we should."
Liberal blogspot Huffington Post featured a June 4 article urging Americans to pay attention to the World Cup. In "Why You Should Care About the World Cup," author John Vorhaus informed readers he would call soccer "football" in the rest of his article, and attempted to convince Americans to watch the World Cup because the rest of the world cares.
He argued that, "Football wasn't my sport - isn't and never will be my sport - but billions of people care enough about it to put their lives on absolute hold for four weeks every four years." (Of course, Europeans famously put everything "on absolute hold for four weeks" far more frequently, when the entire continent shuts down for vacation in August.) "As a responsible citizen of the world," he wrote, "I feel like that's something I should pay attention to."
Vorhaus also asserted, "More to the point, you'll get a taste of something that the rest of the world cares passionately about. In these troubled and isolated times in America, it couldn't hurt at all for us to understand the passions of our foreign friends, competitors, even enemies."
"Citizens of the World" (aka. liberals) talk about the World Cup with the same reverence they reserve for the United Nations, and invest the sport and its championship with symbolic importance.
Time's managing editor, Rick Sanchez, told "Morning Joe" on June 3 the World Cup was the "biggest event in the world," and "an optimistic idea," and soccer was "a global sport."
Indeed, Time's cover story proclaimed soccer, "The Global Game." Author John Carlin touted it as the "species' favorite pastime," a wonderful game because not only can it be played in most places, but the players are so physically diverse that almost everybody can play.
Carlin asserted that how soccer can bring divided groups of people together, but then quoted Nike's corporate vice president of global management as stating, "We've noticed there is nothing like the emotional connection that people have with soccer. There is a tribal instinct with it."
Like many things about America, its soccer backwardness embarrasses right-thinking liberal journalists.
In the same "New York Times Magazine" that featured the "Next-Gen" piece, Michael Sokolove wrote a article about an intense European soccer academy and reported that he, "heard a lot of misconceptions ... Many people seem to believe that the sport is still a novelty in the United States, a game that we took up only the last couple of decades and that is not very popular or perhaps is even disdained by our best male athletes ..."
He reported that Dutch soccer journalist and historian Auke Kok questioned if their "football is too stylish, too feminine?" Sokolove reported that was not the case, but still wondered why "the United States still does not play at the level of the true superpowers of soccer."
Bleacher Report's Tyler Juranovich offered his own take into why Americans were so against soccer.
A soccer fan, he wrote, "It's not news that soccer's popularity in America is slow growing. It's popular everywhere else but not in the good ol' US of A. My theory is because America isn't as dominant at soccer as other sports, we have a hard time taking it seriously. Americans are a little arrogant when it comes to sports, and you can't really blame us. We are dominant in football, baseball, and basketball."
Part of the liberal sales pitch for soccer is its popularity with Hispanics. Liberals who fetishize race are eager to adopt a sport with a special appeal for a certain minority, and it would never occur to them that new arrivals to the country might be well served adapting to traditional U.S. pastimes. To the left, it's America that must change.
Saporito maintained that "the browning of America," will grow the sport. Time's Sanchez told Scarborough, "... you know, when America becomes a nonwhite majority nation in 2040, I mean, you know, the sport of soccer is the sport of, you know, of Hispanic Americans, of all kinds of immigrants to America."
In his June 3rd "guide" to the tournament for ignorant Americans, CBS's Chris Matyszczyk (who actually wrote that baseball players wear "girly pants") posited, "Very soon, America will be a Hispanic country. The Hispanic culture has always been very partial to the world's most wonderful game."
To Matyszczyk, soccer is the future, and demographics say so. Therefore, Americans should preemptively surrender for the sake of their children.
"So, if all the obvious glories of the World Cup still cause you to utter expletives and bury your head in decaying Astroturf," he wrote, "surely it is worth thinking of your children. They will be growing up in an America much different from yours, an America that has soccer at his heart and the NFL somewhere nearer its feet."
A Game of the Left
Since at least the 1970s, Americans have been told that soccer was the future, and it would soon dominate other sports. But the United States proved pretty resistant to soccer's charms, to the chagrin of its boosters on the left. (And yes, it's support has mainly come from the left; in 2002 conservative soccer fan Robert Zeigler plaintively asked in National Review, "What is it about soccer that makes it (in America) the nearly exclusive domain of liberal sports fans?")
Commentators on the right have generally applauded the nation's indifference and pointed the flaws of soccer itself as the cause.
Writing in the last World Cup year (2006) in the Weekly Standard, Frank Cannon and Richard Lessner said, "Despite the heroic efforts of soccer moms, suburban liberals, and World Cup hype, soccer will never catch on as a big time sport in America. No game in which actually scoring goals is of such little importance could possibly occupy the attention of average Americans. Our country has yet to succumb to the nihilism, existentialism, and anomie that have overtaken Europe."
Soccer's 0-0, 1-1 or 1-0 outcomes don't sit well with Americans, who like to think that work accomplishes something, the authors wrote. "Soccer is the perfect game for the post-modern world. It's the quintessential expression of the nihilism that prevails in many cultures, which doubtlessly accounts for its wild popularity in Europe. Soccer is truly Seinfeldesque, a game about nothing, sport as sensation."
Stephen H. Webb wrote for First Things in 2009, "More than having to do with its origin, soccer is a European sport because it is all about death and despair. Americans would never invent a sport where the better you get the less you score."
Then there is soccer's "flop-'n'-bawl," according to another 2006 Weekly Standard article by Jonathan V. Last.
"Turn on a World Cup game, and within 15 minutes you'll see a grown man fall to the ground, clutch his leg and writhe in agony after being tapped on the shoulder by an opposing player. Soccer players do this routinely in an attempt to get the referees to call foul. If the ref doesn't immediately bite, the player gets up and moves along," Last wrote.
"Making a show of your physical vulnerability runs counter to every impulse in American sports. And pretending to be hurt simply compounds the outrage."
And to conservatives, the troubling aspects of the game aren't confined to the pros. Soccer requires comparatively little from children but the ability to run after the ball - the risk of failure for anyone except maybe the goal keeper is zero. Even the strong chance that any given game will end in a tie makes it attractive for parents reluctant to impart life's difficult lessons to young kids.
Webb wrote in First Things that, "Sporting should be about breaking kids down before you start building them up. Take baseball, for example. When I was a kid, baseball was the most popular sport precisely because it was so demanding ... you had to face the fear of disfigurement as well as the statistical probability of striking out. The spectacle of your failure was so public that it was like having all of your friends invited to your home to watch your dad forcing you to eat your vegetables."
In short, a powerful component of character building is missing from youth soccer, an important component of character is missing from pro soccer, and a sense of purposefulness is missing from the entire sport.
It must baffle soccer partisans that Americans haven't taken to their game. After all, the United States is a sports-obsessed nation.
Americans look to sports to teach work ethic, teamwork and responsibility, in addition to the physical and mental skills necessary for competition. They love underdogs and "Cinderella stories" and "Evil Empires" and "bums," "Hogs" and "No-Name Defenses."
And Americans like to think their sports reflect something about them. Michael Shackelford of Bleacher Report praised football because it, "requires a combination of power and agility, brute strength, and grace ... In other words, it requires American characteristics in order to succeed."
And sports have played an important and overwhelmingly positive role in the history of America. During the Civil War, men of both armies were obsessed with baseball, and after the peace our "national pastime" helped repair the ties between north and south. And nearly a century before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Walt Whitman said "I see great things in baseball. It's our game - the American game."