World Cup dreaming
By Ariel Dorfman
July 4, 2010
How can the most popular sport in the world be so insignificant and secondary in the United States?
It is a bizarre phenomenon that, due to personal reasons, has particularly disconcerted me over the years, as my addiction to soccer is inextricably linked to U.S. history. Indeed, I became entranced by the game thanks to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist witch hunt. Had he not persecuted my left-wing dad, an Argentine functionary at the United Nations, and forced our family to flee New York for Chile in 1954, I would probably still prefer today the sports I practiced during my 10 childhood years as a Yank: baseball, basketball, American football. Instead, I was given the chance to fall in love with the Spanish language, with the Chilean revolution, with one woman in particular and, of course, with “el fútbol.”
As I awkwardly tried, at the age of 12, to compete on the fields of Santiago with classmates who had been playing since they were babes, I can remember resenting the utter absence of the game at my schools in New York. That will change, I told myself, that must change someday. Americans, with their prowess in so many other athletic endeavors, cannot forever turn their back on something so precise and unpredictable, such a gloriously fierce ballet of bodies.
So it was encouraging to find a less dismal situation when, the victim of a new exile — this time from Chile — I settled back in the States in the 1980s. Professional soccer, enhanced by Pele’s participation in New York’s Cosmos club in 1977, had raised the sport’s profile, while millions of youngsters across the land, both male and female, were now playing the game. For two seasons I even coached the junior soccer team of my youngest son, Joaquín — in Durham, N.C., of all places! And then the U.S. women won the World Championship in 1991, and in 1994 the men’s World Cup was held in nine fervent U.S. cities. By 2002 the Yankee team had advanced to the quarter finals and hopes kept rising that soon soccer would be as ubiquitous here as it was globally. That illusion — bolstered in the current World Cup by Landon Donovan’s last-minute “miracle” goal against Algeria — quickly dissipated. After losing to Ghana in overtime in the next match, the Americans headed home, leaving in their wake the same desolate question about the irrelevance of soccer in the United States that haunted me over half a century ago.
Many reasons have conspired, I believe, to create this bleak state of affairs. Americans have perennially seen themselves as pioneers, constantly reinventing themselves. Their most popular sports have appropriated traditional games and drastically modified the rules: Cricket became baseball, rugby turned into American football, and even basketball can be considered a variation on indigenous native American activities. But how do you take the “foreign” game of soccer and make it into something other than … well, soccer?
The predominance and head start of those more “American” games has not allowed soccer the space to develop at the collegiate and professional level and, perhaps most crucially, is not massively dreamed of as a path to grandeur by athletically endowed children mired in poverty. American kids have the same talent as youngsters in the favelas of Rio or the shantytowns of Nigeria, but it is siphoned off at an early age in search of more lucrative venues.
Nor do children in the United States get to watch much soccer on television. This last point may be an insoluble problem for the sport’s advancement because it concerns the structure of the game itself. Major U.S. sports events have timeouts and interludes during which ads can be breathlessly crammed in, but one of the essential attractions of soccer is the dramatic relentlessness of the contest once it has begun. You literally cannot stop the clock. This is such a sacred rule of the game that its organizers have resisted the clamor to allow video replays, even when the referee has made a flagrantly erroneous call that can cost a team victory.
Do all these circumstances mean that soccer in the U.S. is doomed to a minor status forever? There are several reasons for tentative optimism. The first is that the United States, despite the increasing stridency of its anti-immigrant nativists, continues to import millions of citizens from the rest of the world. These men and women and children smuggle their love for soccer across the border along with their frequently illegal bodies.
The second reason is that we are living a moment in history when the very notion of American exceptionalism is under siege. If the United States were indeed to abandon the idea that it has been chosen by God to save the world, if its citizens were to really entertain the notion that they are just the same as humans all over the globe and not uniquely endowed with shining virtue, could they not someday join the rest of the species in celebrating the most beautiful sport of our time? Would it then be inconceivable that a few decades from now the U.S. could win the World Cup?
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Ariel Dorfman is the author of Death and the Maiden, among many other novels and essays. He will be delivering the eighth Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg, South Africa, this month.