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The Ritual Attack of the Soccer Scolds

Every four years a cadre of self-righteous soccer fans appears to chastise and convert the non-believers.

12:00 AM, Jun 14, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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YOU WILL REMEMBER, of course, that Ronaldo is the most famous athlete on the planet--much more popular and well-known than Michael Jordan.

Four years ago the soccer scolds insisted this was true. It defied all logic (it's not like the kids in China were running around in Ronaldo jerseys), but it didn't matter. The people who love soccer said so. Now here we are, four years later. Michael Jordan is--still--Michael Jordan and Ronaldo, it's clear, isn't as globally popular as Tiger Woods, let alone MJ. (On a recent "Meet the Press," Tim Russert presented Russia's foreign minister with a Washington Wizards #23 jersey--the Russian beamed and exclaimed how happy he was to get a token from "hiz ayahness." Do you think his face would have lit up for a Ronaldo jersey?)

But the Ronaldo faux-fame phenomenon points to a deep truth about the soccer scolds: They are obsessed with how soccer agnostics view the sport. They maintain, over and over and over, that soccer is beautiful, that soccer is important, and that Americans are dolts for not sharing their love.

In Salon, David Thomson recently gushed that soccer is "something men were made to do, something that is intensely physical yet profoundly imaginative, something made out of muscle, speed, grace and the soul." The game, he says, has an "intensely sexual, intellectual allure."

Thomson's breathless prose isn't out of the ordinary--serious soccer fans talk about the game that way all the time. Writing about the 1994 World Cup in the Nation, Eduardo Galeano lamented that the Brazilian side "played an efficient game, but it was stingy on poetry. . . . several commentators pointed to the style of play imposed by the coach, successful but lacking in magic." And soccer players aren't just magical, they're better athletes than everyone else on the planet. Soccer players are "world class athletes," one soccer scold insisted in a small Pennsylvania paper. "That's something none of our professional leagues can attest to. . . . Most people that don't like soccer have never played the sport, aren't coordinated enough to play the sport, and don't have the athleticism to play it."

To the soccer scold, the game isn't just fun or enjoyable or ennobling--it's Important. In a recent New York Times piece, Simon Kuper claimed that "soccer is distinguished by its political malleability. It is used by dictators and revolutionaries, a symbol of oligarchy and anarchy. It gets presidents elected or thrown out, and it defines the way people think, for good or ill, about their countries." A soccer fan in the San Francisco Chronicle went so far as to posit, "You see, soccer can bring world peace."

America's indifference to soccer is simply unacceptable to the soccer scolds. They cannot just cheer for their team and go about their business. They want--they need--to convert the great unwashed, to force the soccer agnostics to submit. Andrew Sullivan (not a scold, but a concerned fan) worries that "the gulf between America and the world--symbolized by football--is a real and worrisome one." Thomson thinks that "America could do itself good all over the world by saying, 'Well, yes, after all, we all know what football is, . . . football is the world's passion and festival, one of the greatest forms of play ever invented (and a turn-on).'"

In the Washington Post this week, Sally Jenkins practically begged America to embrace soccer--or else:

"So we can make the effort to stay up and watch World Cup soccer and try to understand it--not just the strategy of it, but the passions and politics behind it. Or dismiss it as just soccer, as we have done with so many other things. We can go to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, or Ray's Pizza, or a Tuscan bistro, or some other piece of cultural hash, and then drive home through our American-swank suburb, watch the NBA, and go to bed. And try to sleep soundly."

And when the scolds aren't trying to convert, they attack. A column in the Belfast Telegraph smugly notes that "Real American men still reserve their passions for the steroid-fueled, organised thuggery known as the National Football League." Kuper writes that "For foreigners . . . the World Cup is the one time that they get to treat the U.S. like a lightweight."

In fact, this last sentiment seems to be one of the major attractions of soccer these days. Here in America the soccer scolds have traditionally come from the de Colores crowd, the types who wore their fandom as a wannabe ex-pat credential. (Today soccer has become the nation's gateway sport, with much of America playing at the recreational level. Even level-heads such as Fred Barnes have become casual soccer fans; all of which seems to alternately soothe and infuriate the scolds.)