2010: The Year Soccer Broke
The World Cup’s final stages call forth, as they always do, certain inevitable developments. England goes down like a 12-story building fashioned entirely from burnt newspaper. A plucky underdog seizes the world’s attention, loses in heartrending fashion, and is then immediately forgotten. (Ghana 2010 isn’t so much Cameroon 1990 as South Korea 2002.) Shallow commentators (ahem) hail some team as the future-defining Next Model of the Modern Game, only to watch it unravel quite thoroughly. (Germany? Germany? Germany? You have a match against Spain toda—oh, no. Yesterday. Ah well. Hammer the bejesus out of Uruguay and we’ll see you next time.)
And, of course, we come to the ritual airing of the Will Soccer Now Make It In America? analyses. The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg offers a particularly solid version—because it’s The New Yorker, and he’s Hendrik Hertzberg—that, nonetheless, defines the invariable form and limits of the genre. Soccer’s global popularity explained; the game’s paradoxical position in American culture examined; anti-soccer gapejaws quoted; statistics cited by the raft-load to demonstrate that football actually has a very robust following in the United States; brief coda in re: cosmopolitanism. This is how it’s done—you can write your own at home.
I just about managed to get through this whole World Cup without absorbing a single example of this article’s eternal counterpart, “Soccer is Gay and Foreign and Makes My Shriveling Mind Hurt” by [INSERT 50-SOMETHING DAILY NEWSPAPER SPORTS COLUMNIST or TALK RADIO HOST WITH AGE-INAPPROPRIATE SOUL PATCH]. My ability to avoid this nonsense no doubt owes to a complex structural change in the media, fragmentation, et cetera et cetera. The whole Soccer is Gay argument is also retreating deeper and deeper into the Hindu Kush of know-nothing obduracy, which makes it harder for a respectable family man such as myself to care much. In his piece, Hertzberg refers to such noted experts on sporting culture as Glenn Beck, G. Gordon Liddy and full-tilt oddball Marc Thiessen. I think this list pretty much speaks for itself. If Chuck Klosterman wants to run around in that crowd, I guess that’s his business.
The anti-soccer “argument,” such as it is, now sounds like something the North Korean media could drum up on a slow day: a spitwad of defunct ideology containing no facts. I’ve been following the sport since 1990, basically, and in that time the case for soccer’s gayness and foreignness hasn’t evolved at all. The sport, meanwhile, has changed beyond all recognition. Being an American soccer fan in 1990 was like being a lover of unicorns. We had a lot of time on our hands to worry about why the former high-school basketball equipment manager who now edited our daily paper’s sports page only printed the FA Cup Final result in agate type.
Now, frankly, we’re too busy. Between the World Cup, the Timbers, Liverpool, Barcelona, the rest of the English Premier League, the rest of Europe, the rest of the world, MLS, my futsal team, kick-abouts with three-year-olds (and Jesus) and trying to keep up with the likes of Run of Play and Pitch Invasion, the football quadrant of my brain is fully occupied. Meanwhile, the continued existence of the Soccer is Gay genre represents yet another lazy failure of modern journalism. Any editor or producer who allows one of their charges to regurgitate this old line in 2010 is just about ready for that buy-out package.
Final memo to my colleagues: soccer is decent-sized at home and huge abroad; all media audiences are now global; you wouldn’t hire a political writer who didn’t know who Barack Obama was, would you?
But, by the same token, it’s time to retire pieces like Hertzberg’s as well. The Soccer is Gay/Will Soccer Make It? dichotomy has become just another obsolete media narrative that ignores developments in the actual world. The anti-soccer side sticks by its excuse for tub-thumping pseudo-populism; the pro-soccer side enjoys its platform for saying nice things about international culture. Meanwhile, objective reality has moved on.
Go have a look at the television ratings: it’s over. Here in Portland, one quarter of all active television sets tuned into the USA v Ghana match. One quarter. Of course, we’re kind of gay and foreign here in Portland. So go watch the YouTube celebrations of Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria. Lincoln. Springfield. Covington, Kentucky. This thing happened. The glaciers melted. It’s time to get solar panels.
I just devoted a whole book chapter to the curious case of soccer in America, and while I remain fond of that work, I don’t think I’d write it again. The curious case of soccer in America is closed. I guess we could come up with a chant—bigger than NASCAR! bigger than NASCAR!—to pound the point home, but that seems mean-spirited. Having been a soccer fan for 20 years, I have a soft spot for the strange customs of minority groups. It’s not 1990 any more; we don’t have to defend Tony Meola’s haircut. The time has come to live and let live.