In the annals of unsurprising news, “World Cup start marred by violence and bloodshed” has to rank with the old story, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” After “‘unprecedented’ scenes of disorder” rocked Sao Paulo ahead of the quadrennial world championship Thursday, The Atlantic warned that the upheaval could have a “profound impact” on Brazil, and a CNN anchorwoman asked, “What are these people protesting?” Witnesses told the Telegraph that “they could not recall such unhappy scenes at the start of an event which usually kicks off amid a carnival atmosphere in the host nation.”
In fact, there are few things more precedented than violence and disorder outside a soccer game. The world’s sport of choice is attended by rioting and hooliganism in ways that Americans would expect to see only if the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls all won the NBA championship at the same time and all three teams were composed entirely of UConn graduates. When a player is stabbed and a referee dismembered, you’re talking futbol, not football. When 79 people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in a riot, it’s not cricket and it’s definitely not baseball. When a player is assassinated for blowing or throwing a game, it won’t be the NFL issuing shocked statements about how this kind of behavior is everything the Super Bowl is against; it will be FIFA saying roughly the same thing, in Esperanto, about the World Cup, “the most-watched sporting event on the planet.”
But these arguments will not wash. First, America polices its sports, often to a fault. Plaxico Burress did more time for shooting himself than George Zimmerman did for shooting and killing a high-school student. Donald Sterling is facing the NBA equivalent of a condo-association eviction over remarks he made privately (then expanded on in an internationally televised interview). That’s Labor and Capital both estranged from the product of their efforts by zero tolerance in the land of the free. FIFA takes stabs at punishing bureaucratic threats to its apparatus, but you certainly won’t see that organization’s long line of non-entities engaging in the kind of forelock tugging Americans engage in over non-issues like hypercompetitiveness or the team name of the Redskins.
Second, soccer is forever being advertised in an illuminated fog of world peace and planetary brotherhood. “FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil to promote peace and fight all forms of discrimination,” the Fédération Internationale de Football Association announced at the same time Sao Paolo’s finest were busting heads on kids who were protesting the $11 billion Brazilian taxpayers must spend to host the soccer event. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon let on that “sports have a very powerful ability to unite the people,” adding that soccer was “a very important means to promote peace and development.” Ban reminisced about the Republic of Korea’s hosting of the 2002 World Cup and promised “to use this power of sports, the power of a soccer game, for peace, development, reconciliation, and human rights.”
I always suspect that soccer advocates clothe the sport in the United Colors of Benetton because they realize how parochial and small-minded it really is. This is true in a strictly technical sense: There is more strategic thought involved in a first-down running play that gains two yards than there is in all twelve or so hours of a soccer match.
It’s also true in the deeper regions of the soul where love and hate reside. “Fado, Futebol, e Fátima” was the ruling formula of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, a means of keeping the masses stupefied through traditional song, soccer and a popular apparition of the Virgin Mary. (The formula worked, leaving Salazar in office for 36 years until a brain hemorrhage rendered him incompetent; in his final days, his retainers staged a fairy-tale bureaucracy that allowed the old fascist to believe he was still in power.) It wasn’t just the Battle of Waterloo that was won on the playing fields of Eton. Fans of soccer have been graduating to violence throughout modern times. Is it really an accident that Benito Mussolini was among the first beneficiaries of a home advantage at the World Cup; or that one of the world’s most beloved living footballers, Diego Maradona, is a louche socialist, a friend of Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a flagrant cheat in both taxes and soccer?
It’s tempting to say these few bad apples shouldn’t be allowed to spoil a good time for the rest of us. But in fact, nobody ever seriously questions soccer’s self-presentation as a fun and colorful international movement that unites all earthlings in joy. In sports as in all other areas of life, it is Americans who are routinely denounced as rogues and oafs who have rejected both soccer and the metric system, violent brutes so self-absorbed that a league comprising 29 American teams and one Canadian team calls its championship the “World Series.”
The brutality of U.S. sport has been memorably described in documents like the late George Carlin’s “Baseball or Football” routine. This wonderful rant, however, hints at one of our country’s greatest strengths: We have more than one national sport. Only the most prescriptive of dictionaries could still describe baseball as the national pastime. This reduced status, however, is not the result of a steep decline in baseball’s appeal but of the crowd-pleasing growth of other pastimes. (By “national sport” I am not implying that the game is as bounded as hurling or human-head polo, which seem limited to specific nations; only that it has a critical mass of appeal to Americans.) You say the U.S.A. is too yokelized to appreciate the beauty of soccer. I say soccer has lost fair and square in our very crowded beauty contest. For Americans, the challenge is choosing just one sporting project to immanentize.
In the American head, the national sport is baseball. In the American body, it’s football. But in the heart, it’s basketball: a game where all the struggle is on the ground but the goal is in the air; where the tactical demands, mental and physical, are furious and non-stop until the last millisecond; where teamwork is vital but entrepreneurship and individualism are demanded from every player. (A major-league baseball player who really hustles might end up with a post-retirement regional car dealership; in the NBA you’re slacking if you don’t have your own record label and clothing line while still playing.) Despite years of Hollywood valorization of college football, it’s college hoops that is now so popular we set aside an entire 31-day month to release our collective madness for it.
Basketball is also the U.S.-centered sport that shows the most promise internationally, with professional leagues operating in such far-flung locales as Iran, Lebanon, and New Zealand. It was Dennis Rodman, not David Beckham, who braved the world’s contumely with an underappreciated effort to bring down Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship from inside the paint. For all the Maoist self-criticism Americans engage in, American sport is notably tough for self-dealing politicians to co-opt. Ironically, when we glimpse in real life the dystopia of corrupt rulers, enraged fans, and opiated masses depicted in the James Caan science-fiction movie Rollerball, the game involved is usually soccer, the one sport Americans can’t fake an interest in.
For a few long weeks now, you won’t hear about any of that. Instead you’ll hear lots about doves of peace and global harmony, even or especially if this World Cup produces more violent flare-ups. That’s okay. Barring a social contagion that works its way up through Central America and lights up our streets with violence, it’s unlikely that any World Cup outcome will cause any U.S. sports fan to sleep an hour less or eat a morsel less food. Wish the contestants the best, from favorites Brazil and Spain down to deep underdogs Iran and Costa Rica. Just hope that when it’s over they might graduate to a grownup sport like hacky sack.