The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Ignorancy

Yeah, well, with the day I’ve had it’s not like I was going to get to sleep at a reasonable time anyway. Let’s blow off some steam:

The fuck is THIS guy’s deal?

I mean, beyond that fact that it ignores and insults all US soccer fans by vaguely and half-assedly implying that they’re not REALLY Americans, and ignores and insults all the immigrant and children-of-immigrants Americans who love the game, and has no relevance to any actual facts past or present, it’s a great article.

Look, if perpetually losing was going to make Americans embrace soccer en masse as some sort of challenge or new excitement, the fact that we sucked catastrophically between about 1960 and 1990, were brutally humiliated at the 1998 World Cup and performed badly in the 2006 version would have done it. And yet, when has soccer attracted the most attention in the mainstream in recent history? 1994 when we hosted the World Cup and did well, 2002 when we did exceptionally well by the standards of a team at our level, and recently when we beat Spain. Perhaps there’s a connection, an unforeseen link between success and popularity. Quick question- when has America cared most about hockey, another relatively niche sport? When against all odds our national team beat the Russians and then the Finns in 1980 to win the Olympic gold. Despite all its issues hockey is almost certainly bigger in the states now than it was in 1979 overall. Does anyone think it would be bigger still if we’d lost that game? Does anyone think the NHL would have been briefly considered one of the Big Four north American sports leagues without that moment?

Moreover, let’s look outside soccer again to basketball and reverse the roles- if the US hadn’t been beaten in international play both in individual games and in tournaments, would basketball be anywhere near as big a world sport as it is today? If we were still ripping apart teams like Spain and Argentina without interruption, would they have half the interest they have now in roundball? Or would Manu Ginobili be a fast left wing for River Plate and Rudy Fernandez a tall, rangy striker for Almeria today? How about another example totally outside this context: when has mighty Brazil cared most about, say, boxing? Unless there’s something that’s totally slipping my mind, it was when Eder Jofre or Acelino Freitas were in their primes, winning belts and knocking out great fighters in the name of their homelands, in Freitas’ case draping himself in the flag of Brazil after fights. The same might be said of the Philippines when Flash Elorde was king, or now when AJ Banal and Rey Bautista follow in Manny Pacquiao’s footsteps. I could name you probably ten other similar situations- Indonesia and Chris John, Ukraine and the Klitschkos, Japan and the Kamedas/Daisuke Naito, etc. If none of those fighters had existed and carried the flag for their nation, would those nations have ever paid attention to the sport?

Of course not. With the exception of the centralized training centers run by Russia and China at various times, nations become good at sports because a dedicated if small group of followers in a given country promote, practice and eventually master the sport well enough to beat the dominant power at it, popularizing the sport in the process. That’s been the story over and over again from the growth of soccer in the 19th and early 20th centuries around the world and the quests by local groups to beat English sides (see “The Ball is Round” by David Goldblatt), to the development of basketball in Latin American and European nations as described above, to the development of baseball in Japan. A sample quote on the last from Wikipedia:

“However it wasn’t until the team from Tokyo University started playing that the sport took hold in Japanese culture. In 1896 the team defeated an American team from the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club 29 to 4. It was the first recorded international baseball game in Asia. After that victory, several other universities in Japan adopted the sport and it quickly spread throughout Japan.”

Would we be watching Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki today if it weren’t for victories like that and the success of Hideo “Two No Hitters” Nomo in the majors? Of course not. If there’d been a Japanese-equivalent whinger in 1896 whining about how Japan didn’t deserve to beat the legendary United States at a game Americans love so much, and had said whinger gotten his way, the baseball world would likely be deprived of one of it’s leading nations and the game as a whole would be poorer. But, you know, the moral good would be served, man- they didn’t “deserve” it. Two last points:

1. No matter how much you may wish it to be otherwise, sports are only tangentially and accidentally a morality play. The Right Team wins only if they’re the better team; and as often as not, the nature of fans and media is to try and find ways to make the better team into the Right Team, with a lot of after-the-fact mythmaking. Two years ago, if the Boston Celtics lose in the finals, do we hear all the paeans to their great ability to put egos aside and mesh as a team? If the Lakers had won, would we not have read exactly the same articles about them with Kobe subbing for Paul Pierce in the role of Offensive Star Who Sublimates His Game? If the US had lost today, would this terrible article have been written, saying that would not have deserved the win?

[Warning: it gets political here. Seriously.]

2. The actual emotional bottom line of this piece is the bottomless capacity of some liberals* to look down on their own country and to find it impossible to emotionally identify with it. For the VAST majority of fans (I am clearly an exception in the small minority on this) following sports is a matter of very strong emotional identification with a team; and this is all the more important and powerful when the team in question represents the land of your birth or a home freely chosen. To cheer for the US National Team is, obviously, patriotic if you’re an American; what’s more, it’s open patriotism- loud patriotism, fervent patriotism, unforgiving and unashamed patriotism (it’s also safely channeled appropriate patriotism). When someone writes that the US team didn’t “deserve” to win because “if we had won, most Americans would have shrugged their shoulders–“of course we won”, he’s making a statement baldly contradicted by historical facts across multiple continents and multiple centuries, a statement that’s so at odds with easily-researchable reality that it seems explicable only as emotional projection- especially when you factor in his little bit of mind-reading on behalf of a couple of hundred million people. When he writes that we need “to start loving the game the way that everyone else does”, he tips his hand. America needs to become like the rest of the world; sports, and particularly soccer, will be a measure. When we love soccer enough to win at it, we’ll be enough like the rest of the world to deserve it. What else is this but an expression of the author’s lack of ease with American patriotism, and his wish that America might be something different?

You can see the way the arguments flow from this sort of worldview. This seems to be the sort of person who argues for single-payer national insurance not because it’s better at containing costs or more socially just than our current system, but because Scandinavia does it; who argued for the Kyoto treaty to be signed not because of the merits and the pressing nature of the problem, but because so many other countries had signed it; who argues against the death penalty not because it’s far too often prey to false convictions and applied in a racist fashion, but because the only other countries which use it have hideous governments like Saudi Arabia’s. It’s effectively an extensive and only semi-disguised argumentam ad populum which will convince only the thoughtless and slothful on its own. It gives liberals a bad name because it’s a weak argument whose emotional appeal is essentially to shame, and because it leads to a tendency to lazily conflate difference or minority status within the world community with inferiority. From there you’re only a half-step away from the idea that the problem with America isn’t that we’ve often followed really stupid policies domestically and abroad (which we have at times from any perspective, including that of pure national self-interest), but that Americans aren’t enough like, well, Brazilians. And so you end up with this article. And if you don’t think this sort of thing is motivated largely by American liberal guilt- find me the Australian equivalent of this article, because they’re not any more enthusiastic about soccer than we are for the most part. They just don’t tend to assume that it represents a colossal national character flaw. For that matter find me an article which suggested it was somehow wrong for Argentina to win the 2004 Gold Medal for men’s basketball despite hoops being far from the most popular sport in the country, or a person who thought Italy’s loss in the finals of that tournament said something about Italian national character. Only America produces these sentiments, from others and from some of its own; thus do some critics of American exceptionalism unwittingly base their claims on a foundation of the very thing they seek to assail.

Patriotism should be about more than getting your way in policy disputes; embracing soccer should be about more than a wish that other people in your country were more like you and less like, well, themselves. Sports are both more and less than a kindergarten- grade morality play. Life is complicated. Learn to love it and think deeply on it, or run the risk of writing stuff like this article.

*Emphasis on SOME. Not “most” or “many” or “a good number”- some, by which I mean a tiny minority. And keep in mind, I’m fairly liberal myself.

ADDENDUM: Don’t judge Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog by this goofistry. He rarely if ever writes on sports and this post was by a guest blogger. Coates himself is usually excellent and always thought-provoking. For all I know Serwer himself is usually better than this on serious topics and on posts which aren’t dashed off quickly as a guest-blogger. Let’s hope so.

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June 29, 2009 - Posted by | Other Soccer

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