Voice from America

US and the World Cup: Nationalism without Football?

07 Jul, 2014    ·   4546

Dr Amit Gupta looks at how soccer reflects broader class differences within the country

Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta
Visiting Fellow

Once every four years Americans discover football - or as they like to call it, soccer. Yet this temporary attraction to the game has little to do with a real understanding of the global sport but more with the ability to project sporting nationalism. So is soccer catching on in the US? The answer is no and yes and it reflects on the changing demographics and socioeconomic patterns of the US. 

In the US, football comes in a distant fourth to the premier sports of American football, basketball, and baseball. These games have been around for over a 100 years and young Americans have been socialised to play and watch these sports. Thus when the US hosted the World Cup in 1994 it did not even have a domestic professional league. Further, there remains a belief that soccer is too foreign, too slow, too low-scoring, and if one is to go by the musings of the conservative commentator Ann Coulter, too socialist in its orientation. In her dismissal of soccer as being un-American, Ms. Coulter stated that in the game there, “are no heroes, no losers, no accountability, and no child's fragile self-esteem is bruised. There's a reason perpetually alarmed women are called "soccer moms," not "football moms." Not one to be pithy, Ms Coulter added that soccer was loved by The New York Times (a politically unsound newspaper to the lunatic faction of America’s right), it was not liked by African-Americans, and not a serious game since men and women played together on the same field - and no serious game from kindergarten onwards was ever co-ed. She ended by stating, “If more "Americans" are watching soccer today, it's only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy's 1965 immigration law. I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.” Such feelings of xenophobia, however, do not explain why 18.2 million viewers saw the US-Portugal game on ESPN. 

Ms Coulter is partially correct when she states that most Americans are not interested in soccer but like any other nation they love the nationalistic sentiments and tribal behavior that the game stirs up.  American sports are dubbed “world championships” but they only involve one American city playing another. In contrast, the World Cup is America against the world. So Americans want their national team to win even though many have trouble understanding soccer and are particularly troubled by the fact that the game is not full of technological solutions, time-outs (convenient for going to the bathroom), and legalese - the rules of an American sport like football or basketball read like an extensive contract for a corporate merger. The fact is that for the older American who has not played the game, it is as confusing and boring as cricket. Further, sports commentators, team owners in major professional sports, and even some players have an economic interest in denigrating soccer since it could threaten the established sporting hierarchy in the US. But things are not as gloomy as they seem because socioeconomic and demographic changes are making soccer assume a more prominent role in the US.

First, America’s suburban white middle-class has embraced the game because it easy and inexpensive to play, it is injury-free, and consequently the game is mainly played by children from middle class and affluent families. It is this educated, globalised class that is the future of the game in the US particularly since the sport is so participation-friendly for young women. And women, secondly, are slowly bringing about a socioeconomic and educational shift in America. Since 1980 the ratio of women to men going to college has been 3:2, in major metropolitan areas women in their twenties make more than their male counterparts and, according to the Pew Research Center, in nearly 40 per cent of American households, women are either the sole or primary breadwinner - and a lot of these women have played soccer. This is a major difference from the big American sports where women’s participation has been reduced to being cheerleaders and earning minimum wage. In contrast, the US women’s team has won the World Cup and it is a very common sight in urban areas to see twenty and thirty-somethings play co-ed pickup games.  Soccer fits into the narrative of the urban, educated, environmentally conscious, globalised, and well to do person. It is these people who man the information technology giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. They are the people who have well-paying jobs in hedge funds, too big to fail banks, Hollywood, and advertising. So soccer may not appeal to the gun-toting, NASCAR watching, rural to semi-rural population of America but it resonates extremely well with those who run the innovative America that is a world power. Thus soccer reflects broader class differences in America where the less educated treat the game, like other changes to American society, with suspicion while the better educated see it part of their lifestyle.

Lastly, as we witness the browning of America we are seeing more and more Latin migrants in the country and their family passions run to soccer. In the World Cup Americans have been cheering two teams: Team USA and the Mexican team, which has a large fan base in the country. 

Soccer, therefore, will grow in America since it is now patronised by the educated and dynamic young people of the country - and America will be sucked into the global frenzy of football. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.