Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, every four years America witnesses the reemergence of a rare and annoying creature, the soccer scold. With the onset of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, there have been numerous sightings of soccer scolds in their native habitat—that is, in the media.
The soccer scolds love soccer—love it deeply and passionately—but they only really show their plumage quadrennially. And when they’re not preening, they’re on the attack: against the hordes of Neanderthals, xenophobes, and troglodytes who do not particularly enjoy watching professional soccer. Which is to say, most of America.
The soccer scolds are alternately infuriated and thrilled by Americans’ resistance to embracing “futbol” as a spectator sport. Infuriated, because they believe that this resistance is a synecdoche for everything foul in the nation’s soul. But thrilled because this allows them to strike counter-cultural poses.
Consider Will Leitch. If you’re not familiar with Leitch’s work, think of him as the Katha Pollitt of hipster sports journalism. Or perhaps a less self-aware version of Peter King. With the United States’ first match against Ghana, Leitch began a crusade to demonstrate his passion for soccer by recounting the injuries he had sustained while watching the match in a (Brooklyn?) bar: “[A]s I type this particular second, I have an icepack on my face, bourbon is sweating out of every orifice and I’m fairly certain my Clint Dempsey USMNT jersey has several holes . . . somewhere. Also: My bottom lip is swollen, my top lip is split, and, I suspect, there is blood in places I haven’t come across yet.”
He then declared that the rest of America was following him over the barricades: “It is rather clear at this point that this is becoming the American Summer of Soccer. . . . Even those who have avoided the game out of general principle—minus a few elderly, doltish exceptions—have given themselves over to it.” As a mathematical proposition, this simply wasn’t true. Perhaps everyone Leitch knew was reveling in the World Cup, but most of America shrugged. So Leitch adjusted his view to explain how the bitter clingers were on the wrong side of history. Soccer might be contrary to the “American Character,” he wrote, but,
It is worth noting . . . that The American Character is basically a sloppy conflagration [sic] of caricatures of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan and Mike Ditka, the purview of privileged white men who also think Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame because he “hustled” and only embraced Muhammad Ali when it was expedient and risk-free for them to do so. These people are dying out, but they are not out of power.
Meanwhile, over at MSNBC they were watching soccer, too. After the United States was eliminated by Belgium, host Chris Hayes explained, “The aversion that some hold to joining the world and embracing soccer is often weirdly tied to American exceptionalism. . . . And while we didn’t win, that’s ultimately all right. Because part of embracing a truly worldwide competition is accepting the fact the U.S. cannot simply assert its dominance.”
The conundrum in all of this scolding, of course, is that Americans love soccer! It’s our nation’s gateway sport. Every year parents spend trillions of man-hours shuttling their kids to practices and games and tournaments. We sacrifice millions of oranges for half-time rituals. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t played at least a year or two of organized soccer at some point in his life. So Americans don’t hate soccer; they’re just ambivalent about the professional version as a spectator sport.
All of which suggests that for the soccer scolds, it’s not really about soccer. It’s about their own misgivings and discomfort with the American mainstream.