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Why World Cup Culture Wars Vindicate American Soccer

As more Americans than ever tuned in to watch the World Cup over the past few weeks, the American media’s quadrennial habit of analyzing soccer’s place in the country raged on. Cranky right-wingers, embodied by Ann Coulter’s now-infamous ramble, put forth common criticisms of soccer: it has an insufficient gender gap, allows scoreless ties, prohibits using hands, is foreign and liberal, prioritizes team effort over individual prowess, and constitutes all-around “moral decay.” In the face of such resistance, soccer fans like Daniel Drezner proposed simply changing the rules of the game to assuage his fellow Americans’ sense of fairness, rather than asking Americans to adapt to the game’s delightful capriciousness like the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Peter Beinart and other commentators on the left celebrated the “soccer coalition” of youth, immigrants, and liberals—the same one that elected President Obama, he recalled—proving that Americanness is not contingent upon the white working-class culture idealized by Coulter. In short, Americans loudly participated in a soccer nation’s rite of passage by reading domestic politics into the sport every chance they could get.

Though the debate largely focused on whether soccer could possibly have a place in accepted American identity, this process of political theorizing and contention mirrors the way soccer has been absorbed into other cultures throughout the sport’s history. Americans who chafe at the sport’s European origins join the long tradition of our southern neighbors who idealized the “creolization” of soccer while forming national identity after the Latin American revolutions of the 19th century. In Argentina, soccer was the manifestation of the “melting pot” where Italian and Spanish immigrants took over British cultural imports, a process crafted in the pages of the magazine El Gráfico. In Brazil, soccer was a place to reconcile racial tensions by highlighting diversity as a source of American ingenuity and creativity, superior to formulaic and homogenous European play. The contemporary American media’s ongoing narratives of soccer are similar not just in their obsessive nature, but in the diverse subcultures they are trying to weld together.

Soccer has always come with class connotations that plague burgeoning sports cultures. The prevailing image of soccer, both in the U.S. now and in Latin America a century ago, is of white urban and suburban elites who use the sport to moralize. Soccer was formalized in British public schools in the 19th century in order to promote Victorian morality and “muscular Christianity”—as well as to simply keep boys busy—but it largely came to the Americas as the pastime of the “gentleman-athletes” among British immigrants to South America. The “amateur era” of early 20th century soccer parallels the American “soccer mom” values that encourage teamwork and cooperation in children before moving on to more individualist sports as adults, and it is just as widespread and pejoratively viewed as its predecessor. As American pundits critique this intrusion of foreign collectivist values, they are echoing, among others, 1920s and 1930s Argentines calling for “our own style” (“la nuestra”) to counter and replace British beliefs.

And just as Argentines, largely Southern European immigrants at the time, set up British immigrants as their sporting and cultural “other,” soccer advocates in the U.S. are fighting for an alternative soccer culture to the one offered by the suburbs. Writers like Yuya Kiuchi have proposed soccer as a force uniting groups otherwise marginalized by American sports culture: it is uniquely dominated by women, due to its arrival in the U.S. alongside Title IX, while ethnic minorities and Latinos in particular use the sport as a community gathering tool and path to social mobility. Kiuchi, and others who would have soccer embody American values and society, conclude that soccer fills a void in American sports by engaging these demographics and elevate this narrative over the “soccer mom” trope as definitive of American soccer.

But in reality, soccer in America has always been both. British immigrants to Argentina were not all wealthy “gentlemen”—many were workers who organized teams by profession and threw a wrench into the neat “melting pot”-against-imperialism narrative of Argentine soccer. U.S. soccer engages the wealthy and the poor, whites and Latinos, urban and suburban populations alike, but simplifying those paradoxes in order to craft one national sporting narrative is all part of any sport’s growth. The waves of polemics that clash every four years mark off the steady and gradual ascent of soccer into the American mainstream, characterized by tripling domestic league attendance, consistent domination in women’s soccer, and flourishing youth leagues. The identity politics put up as a resistance are only further proof that the sport is here to stay.

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