Other Reviews of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism
"American Exceptionalism as a Matter of Sport"
An estimated half billion Chinese tuned in to watch their national squad beat Oman in October to qualify for its first World Cup ever. The tournament will be held next June in South Korea and Japan. In Ireland, which qualified after beating the formidable Dutch, pub owners are seeking to change liquor licensing laws to allow them to open at 6:30 a.m. during the tournament. Meanwhile, Argentina, Nigeria and England are atwitter that they must play each other in the first round. Only in America could you find significant number of people who might quibble with the notion that the World Cup's qualifying matches this year were the biggest story around. The world, we are constantly being told, is shrinking. People in Berlin, Boston and Buenos Aires increasingly listen to the same music, watch the same movies and read the same books. The shared culture is mostly American, except for one glaring exception: Sports. American exceptionalism used to be shorthand for this country's aversion to socialism. It could now be shorthand for Americans' relative lack of interest in the world's most popular sport.
Soccer is the only form of truly global pop culture that is not dominated by America. Though increasingly popular, baseball, football and basketball have proved less infectious overseas than Hollywood movies and American music. In the last quarter century, soccer has taken off among American kids, but the game has made little headway in the hearts and minds of couch potatoes. It's getting harder to maintain that it's only a matter of time.
Still, the growing pool of youth talent, and the fledgling Major League Soccer, have resulted in a higher level of play. America's national team has qualified for the 2002 World Cup (it will face South Korea, Portugal and Poland in the first round), but it may be the only one of 32 qualifying countries where the feat went largely unnoticed. Infuriatingly enough to the rest of the world, America is becoming a force in soccer without much caring about it.
Critics tend to dwell on certain aspects of the game - like its low scoring and dearth of statistics - to explain why soccer has failed to catch on in America. But in "Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism", a book published earlier this year, Andrei Markovits, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, and Steven Hellerman, a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University, argue that America's immunity from the soccer craze has more to do with its history.
If a sport failed to work its way into the cultural mainstream in the half-century preceding 1930 - the crucial period in the creation of mass, industrialized urban society - it was effectively marginalized, according to the authors. Moreover, games imported after a nation's shared "sports space" has been filled invariably end up alienated from the mass culture, perceived as overly ethnic or refined.
Soccer, considered a heavily male, rough and proletarian sport in much of the world, thus has decidedly suburban aspirations in America. It has also been embraced here as a female sport to a greater degree than elsewhere. Only the popularity of the women's national team has managed at times to catapult soccer into water-cooler conversation fodder.
Soccer did have its chance to establish itself during the key window of opportunity, "Offside" reminds us, when sports became a part of mass culture. The second organized soccer league anywhere was formed in America, and the first intercollegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 bore as much resemblance to soccer as it did to today's football.
The nation's strong nativist streak also contributed to soccer's travails. Immigrants eager to assimilate shunned foreign games. By the early 20th century, soccer had a global federation lording over the sport, which did not help matters in a proudly insular federation. Better to play our own sports and crown our own "world champions."
Much like those heavy foreign movies with their dreary endings, soccer can seem anathema to this country's can-do sense of optimism. Though much of the world may identify with the often hopeless struggle embodied in soccer, Americans cannot abide a sport where futility, lousy play, little action or no scoring - often prevails.
As the English novelist Nick Hornby notes in his memoir of a soccer fan, "Fever Pitch," "Complaining about boring football (soccer) is a little like complaining about the sad ending of King Lear: It misses the point somehow." He adds that he goes to soccer matches for loads of reasons, but not for entertainment. That is an admittedly un-American sentiment. Why follow a sport that often fails to gratify.
Because we might someday beat the world at its own game, is the hopeful answer provided by "Offside." If the day comes when America's national squad is in contention to become true world champion, then soccer might indeed start seeming less boring, and a little less foreign, to home grown couch potatoes.
Please also visit Andy Markovits' official University of Michigan website.
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