The odd man out
Jun 8th 2006
From The Economist print edition
America's coolness towards football is another example of American exceptionalism
FOR the next month the world will be engaged in the closest thing yet found to a universal religion—watching football (or soccer, as Americans call it). From the mansions of Pimlico to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, everyone but a few eccentrics will stop what they are doing in order to watch teams of young men trying—usually without success—to get a ball into a net. The World Cup will be broadcast to 5 billion people in 189 countries.
Amid this global fervour the United States will stand out like a temperance preacher at a Bierfest. Football is not quite the non-sport that it once was. The American team is not bad. There are a few pockets of football enthusiasts, mostly in posh suburbs and Latino-crowded inner cities. Fans will be able to follow the game without resorting to Spanish-language channels. But football still remains a distant also-ran behind American sports such as baseball, basketball, hockey and American football (in 2002 only 3.9m Americans watched the World Cup final, compared with 95m who watched this year's Super Bowl). The country that dominates the world's popular culture is hopelessly marginal when it comes to the world's most popular sport.
America's marginality is underlined by its failure to export its own sports. Baseball is popular in Japan and Central America, and basketball has recently become a craze in China; but that is a pretty poor record compared with the British Empire's success in exporting one of the world's most idiosyncratic games, cricket. The National Football League has singularly failed to convert Europeans to American football, despite decades of investment (this year's World Bowl attracted only 36,000 spectators). At a time when the world is obsessed with such icons of American popular culture as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, nobody outside America gives a damn about Barry Bonds or LeBron James.
America is perhaps the only country that greets the World Cup with an orgy of football-bashing. In 1986 Jack Kemp took to the floor of Congress to contrast “European socialist” soccer with “democratic” and “capitalist” American football. In 2003 a blogger even pointed out that a leading al-Qaeda terrorist had been a European soccer player: “You don't see any former NFL players or Major League baseball players joining al-Qaeda, do you?”
This year is no different—though, for the time being at least, the focus of moral outrage has shifted from hooliganism to sexual depravity, with commentators fixating on Germany's willingness to provide “sex garages” and “mega-brothels” to slake the lusts of depraved football fans. On June 6th Tim Parks, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argued that the competition was “born out of cheating” before giving Uncle Sam a pat on the back: America finds it hard to get involved in this game of “world domination” because it is too busy with the “real thing”.
Yankee hostility to football draws on deep wells of both patriotism and populism. The history of assimilation has been one of abandoning foreign sports (primarily football) in favour of American pastimes. The sons of football-playing parents knew that they had become good Americans when they could quote the batting average of left-handed Yankee players in losing seasons. More recently, football has become embroiled in the culture wars. The most prominent supporters of football, apart from new immigrants, are overclass parents who want their little darlings to play a civilised foreign game rather than the lumbering American performance that bears the same name.
If the World Cup is an opportunity for football-bashing in America, it is also an opportunity for America-bashing in the rest of the world. Budweiser has tried to make a joke of America's weakness as a football power with the slogan “You do the football, we'll do the beer”. But for many Europeans football is not a joking matter. Andrei Markovits, a professor at the University of Michigan and the author of “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism”, argues that Europeans are in a mood of “constant irritation” when it comes to America and football. Americans, they grumble, either fail to embrace the “beautiful game” or, when they do, get it wrong. How dare they turn it into a women's game! And how dare they insist on calling it “soccer”! Germany has been in high dudgeon for months over the fact that the national coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, is an Americanophile who lives in Los Angeles and has employed American fitness-trainers and a psychologist to help prepare the team.
Behind all this lies a bigger debate about America's cultural idiosyncrasy. Americans like to think of themselves as global trendsetters and standard-makers. But a raft of opinion polls since the Iraq war have demonstrated that America is not so much a trendsetter as an outlier—more individualistic, more religious, more nationalistic, more anti-government and more gung-ho about the use of force than other countries.
This evidence of American exceptionalism has provoked a fierce debate within the United States between “red” Americans, who are proud of their country's oddness, and “blue” Americans (mostly Democrats), who think that America should pay more attention to the rest of the world. It has also provoked an even fiercer backlash in other countries against America's “weird” values, such as its support for the death penalty and its predilection for unilateral action.
It is possible that American exceptionalism may wane in the next few years, particularly if the Democrats can recapture the presidency. Unilateral action is out of fashion, thanks to the Iraq mess. But when it comes to sport, American exceptionalism looks more enduring. It is hard to imagine America's indigenous sports being forced to cede much ground to soccer, short of a dramatic victory by the national team in July; and it is impossible to imagine the rest of the world abandoning their beloved footballs for pigskins or baseball bats.