I am emphatically in the pro-soccer camp of the ongoing and interminably boring argument about the sport. While it’s relatively low on my sports viewing priority list – somewhere below professional hockey and above professional frolf – it is a game that can on occasion be beautiful and emotionally rousing. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
What’s more, World Cup soccer in particular can achieve something wonderful not even the Olympics does: for a brief shining moment, it can turn irony-obsessed liberal hipsters into unironic jingoistic patriots. Can you think of something more opposed to the character of the purposefully disengaged postmodern citizen of the world than cheering for America to beat other countries at a sport? And that is something so obviously good and healthy that I don’t think any conservative should oppose it, even if it’s being done by people with European sensibilities and politics. I thought Ann Coulter was in favor of assimilation?
On the other hand, I can understand the disgust found among sports radio callers and red meat American football fans for the type of arrogant evangelical soccer fandom exemplified by Will Leitch, a sports writer and former Deadspin founder who makes up for being insufferable by also being very thin-skinned. In this piece, he makes the case that the real reason people dislike the World Cup is that it cuts against old-fashioned American values – namely, that we like to win at things – and that this more enlightened view of “celebrating losing” represents our preordained future.
This is part of our American transition to soccer, and I wonder how well some people are going to be able to handle it. Because for all the idiotic prattle being written about America and What's Wrong With Soccer – and there is so, so much – there are some parts of the game, the way it is scored and tallied and timed, that do, in fact, run counter to what many consider the American character. The athletic heroes that Americans profess to admire – namely Michael Jordan, the most influential sports figure of the last 40 years – are driven by a win-at-all-costs insanity that tends to ruin their lives off the field but provide us a manly, bodice-ripping ideal on it. We aren't supposed to celebrate losing, even if it benefits us. That's not part of The American Character. (It is worth noting, by the way, that The American Character is basically a sloppy conflagration 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.)
Here we have a sparkling example of Leitch’s oeuvre: the clichéd caricature of all people who disagree with him and all people who agree with him, the appeal to twee sentimentality, the stringing together of recognizable pop culture icons as a substitute for an argument, and the broad-spectrum glorification of being a loser (Leitch’s memoir, which he wrote before he turned 30, is called “Life As A Loser”). What I find particularly amusing is the idea that America is “transitioning” to soccer over the frustrations of the ghosts of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, any more than it transitions to downhill skiing or track and field or the metric system. The reality is that this is a contest with a four year span between its clashes, and with teams functioning as representatives of nations. In the absence of pro-American sentiment, the level of interest here – already marginal – diminishes. A “transition” to a sport requires more than just interest every four years: it requires a sustainable domestic league, with franchises and clubs people actually care about. I simply don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic sustainable surge in MLS viewership coming out of this World Cup, any more than his performance in Kicking and Screaming is suddenly going to outrank Mike Ditka’s other achievements.
Yet Leitch has done something good here: he’s given us a perfect example of why some of America’s soccer fans are so obnoxious and off-putting, and actually make the sport harder to enjoy for the casual fan. For Leitch, it’s not enough for soccer to just be a sport in the pantheon of contests of interest to sports-mindful Americans – its approach to “winning” and its allowance of ties and point system has to be cast as superior to old-fashioned American ideals of winning and losing, as something all sports ought to arc toward. It’s one thing to argue that soccer is entertaining, or worthwhile, or promotes good teamwork – it’s another to argue that it is by its very nature loftier and nobler than those shoddy old sports with their more aggressive and militaristic attitudes. That’s a pretty big leap for a sport where every match involves a player howling and pretending to be injured with all the subtle acting prowess of a vintage Vlade Divac flop.
The amusing part of all this is that Leitch is so dedicated to the idea that losing is okay – that sports, like life, should be just about the journey, not the destination – that he’s not going to be satisfied unless his ideas prevail – unless they win. The supremacy of his mindset must be acknowledged. It’s not enough for his favored sport to be enjoyed or to attract interest. It’s got to put the people he disagrees with on the wrong side of history, too. Maybe he’s just doing it to be ironic?