America’s Love-Hate Relationship With Soccer

Clint Dempsey's goal against Portugal Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

The USA showed plenty of passion on the pitch during the World Cup—and there was plenty off it, too. At times, it threatened to turn nasty as the success of the team divided Americans over the merits of an alien game that might not be quite so alien ever again.

Political and cultural fissures were exposed in a land where football is traditionally played by men in padded shirts and helmets – and which stops every few minutes for a commercial break.

Ann Coulter, a card-carrying soccer basher and conservative commentator, set off a firestorm with an article headlined: “America’s Favourite National Pastime: Hating Soccer”—and was savaged on social media as a result.

Then Sean Hannity of Fox News waded in by saying soccer was boring, while others branded the world’s most popular game a liberal invention that smacks of socialism and is mainly played by immigrants, possibly some of them living illegally in the United States.

“Soccer fever hits fever pitch,” blared a headline in USA Today. And, for a moment, the country was truly infected as millions bunked off work and gathered in their thousands to watch the games.

America lost to Belgium in the round of 16, but the bandwagon kept rolling and now it has been suggested – and in no way denied by the US Soccer Federation – that the United States could come to Fifa’s rescue by staging the 2022 World Cup if the tournament was taken away from Qatar after claims the Gulf state was involved in a corrupt bidding process.

America already has the stadiums; five out of 14 international sponsors and partners in Brazil 2014 were American companies and more World Cup tickets were sold to Americans than any other country apart from the host Brazilians.

RTR3WPTV U.S. President Barack Obama reacts as he watches the World Cup soccer match between the U.S. and Belgium Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“What we see in the United States is staggering,” said Jerome Valcke, Fifa’s Secretary General. “The country has the largest level of youth soccer in the world, with 20 million young people playing, and there is a commitment from Fifa to work with US soccer.”

Despite some conservatives’ protestations, America’s growing love of soccer is beyond doubt. President Barack Obama, who calls himself a “soccer dad,” has assumed the role of cheerleader-in-chief and even spoke on the telephone to the USA team’s captain and goalkeeper shortly before the Belgium game.

Coulter said the growth of soccer is “a sign of the nation’s moral decay,” a socialist sport where “individual achievement is not a big factor” and where in some countries losing fans go on the rampage, fuelled by drink and tribal hatred. However, Stan Veuger, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank has broken ranks with his ultra-conservative colleagues.

“Soccer is certainly not a socialist sport when it comes to its industrial organisation,” he says. “Unlike the NFL [National Football League], it is not a cesspit of bailouts, revenue sharing, or affirmative action for under-performers.”

The soccer fraternity in America argues that the game is in fact more cut-throat capitalist than any other professional American sport. Under-performing soccer teams in Europe get relegated at the end of each season and lose millions of dollars in the process, whereas the concept of relegation in America is laughable.

The Washington Redskins of the NFL may lose every game in a season, but they have no fear of being demoted. And the weak teams in the NFL are rewarded through the popular draft system, whereby they get the first picks of the top graduating college players.

The NFL draft, loved by conservatives and liberals alike, is actually “un-American,” notes political scientist Dominic Tierney in The Atlantic: “If Obama announced that the top medical school graduate would be forced to work in the worst hospital in the country, people would be outraged.”  

America’s soccer league, Major League Soccer (MLS), was founded in 1996. All its players, except a few designated stars, are centrally owned and paid by the league, and a salary cap exists to create “parity”. It was not liberals but America’s biggest conservative capitalists who were the engine behind soccer’s growth. MLS has almost doubled in size since its early days

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has spent $600 million buying the TV rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and arch-conservative Philip Anschutz, owner of the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, helped found MLS and once owned six teams in the league. It was Anschutz who signed David Beckham to his Los Angeles Galaxy team in 2007 on a five-year, $250 million deal. Things have never been the same since.

The “Beckham effect” was far-reaching. Beckham and his wife Victoria made soccer fashionable. Tom Cruise turned up at games. Beckham is currently in negotiations to start his own team in Miami.

us-world-cup-fans Fans cheer after the U.S. scored a second goal during the 2014 Brazil World Cup Group G soccer match between Ghana and the U.S. at a viewing party in Hermosa Beach, Calif., on June 16, 2014. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The league will have 21 teams next year. Orlando City Soccer Club will introduce Brazil’s Kaka, and the Manchester City-funded New York City FC, will roll out Spain’s David Villa, and, perhaps, the former Chelsea player, Frank Lampard. Already, the Seattle Sounders average more than 44,000 for their home games.

While there are shrill voices who see soccer as a plot to change the natural order, denouncing the game in America is fast becoming old-fashioned – a minority sport, even.

Once upon a time, soccer was all about “soccer moms”—white middle-class housewives who ferried their children to practice in mini-vans. Now it touches all levels of society and, crucially, all kinds of voters. As a BBC commentator put it after the USA lost narrowly to Belgium in extra time, “This is a proper team with proper fans. They get it.”