Magazine | November 13, 2017, Issue

Soccer in America: Popularity Never Develops

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi vies for the ball, December 18, 2016. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

As many of you know, a relentless crusade to compel hard-working, God-fearing citizens to embrace the sport of soccer has been corroding American values for over 50 years now.

It begins early on, as lazy gym teachers and negligent parents abdicate their civic responsibilities and demand that children chase checkered balls around on open fields. Throughout suburban America, mobs of tots can be seen chaotically running around in circles every weekend. Most of our kids, God willing, will break free of this compulsion by the time they hit their teenage years and embrace athletics that feature a plot. Others, I’m afraid, will be condemned to a lifetime of trying to convince themselves that “Atlanta United FC” is a real thing.

Just to be clear: I’m in no way suggesting that there aren’t Americans who legitimately enjoy and appreciate the sport of soccer. I’m merely suggesting that those people are bad at being Americans.

Yes, I realize that mocking fútbol is cheap and easy. But I feel compelled to bring all this up again because after another four years of hype about the coming soccer revolution, the United States national men’s team was knocked out of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Trinidad and Tobago were simply too much for the upstart Americans to handle. European nations are pooled with other powerhouses while the United States fails to wrest a playoff spot from nations with GDPs roughly equivalent to that of a midsized middle-class Houston suburb.

It was reported that Fox Sports had shelled out somewhere near $200 million for the right to televise the 2018 World Cup. The price was predicated on the idea that the network would be able to highlight the American phenom named Christian Pulisic. Numerous publications insist that this young man is “the real deal.” Like many of you, I’ve lived through perhaps a dozen or so real-deal U.S. soccer phenoms who were swallowed whole by their European counterparts.

One wishes Pulisic the best in the German Bundesliga.

We’re perpetually on the cusp of soccer breaking wide open in the United States, aren’t we? This dream goes back to 1862, when the Oneida Football Club was formed in Boston. Within a few years, the Oneida players had come to their senses and invented the more civilized “Boston game,” wherein players were allowed to pick up the ball and run with it. Or, in other words, football. We haven’t stopped picking up the ball since.

For the next hundred years, the American imagination would be captured by the dramas and romance of baseball, boxing, and football. Yet, like a scorned stalker, soccer lurked. It wasn’t until the social and cultural decay of the late 1960s that the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League finally merged to form a true North American soccer league (which called itself that). By the mid 1970s, one club, the New York Cosmos, was trying to entice Americans by signing a number of international stars who’d passed their primes. Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and, most famously, Pelé would come to the United States and introduce local audiences to the true greatness of soccer.

It worked. Would-be fans showed up in droves. They filled up Yankee Stadium. They filled up Giants Stadium. Crowds of 70,000 or more assembled to watch soccer on seven different occasions in the late 1970s. All of this, however, would be a Pyrrhic victory. The downside of attracting big crowds of Americans to watch soccer is that they eventually have to watch soccer. By 1984, the league was kaput.

The next stab at bringing soccer to America was also built around personality. This time, the focus was British heartthrob David Beckham, who signed a five-year contract worth $6.5 million per year with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. That may sound like chump change when compared with Major League Baseball salaries, but in soccer terms Beckham’s contract was more than other teams’ entire payrolls. The media, whose love affair with the game has always been wildly out of proportion to the size of its fandom, covered the signing incessantly. Beckham’s wife, Victoria (née Posh Spice), was given her own show on ABC. Beckham went on to score an average of three goals per season — or approximately one goal per $2 million.

“Why do you have to hate soccer so much?” I am sometimes asked after one of my many angry and unprompted tirades against it. Well, much of my disdain for the sport is predicated on a kind of chauvinism. Though we appreciate, appropriate, and integrate the best the world has to offer, nations legitimize themselves through culture, and in this country a big part of that cultural identity rests on sports.

“Don’t you find your position disrespectful to immigrants who come here and love the game?” Not at all! One of the greatest gifts we can offer the men and women who escape the destitution and tyranny of the wider world is the chance to embrace professional sports that aren’t soccer. Joe DiMaggio, the son of Italian immigrants, didn’t dream of playing midfield for the New York Red Bulls. Things like baseball offer us some continuity as a nation of immigrants.

Besides, it seems to me that soccer’s most aggressive proponents always have a hint of “Why can’t we be more like Europe?” in their case for the sport. “Perhaps one day Americans will be evolved enough to appreciate the subtle beauty of a 0–0 friendly match” is the subtext I hear. These people often view American athletics as vulgar, violent, and pompous. And, thankfully, they’re right. Let’s keep it that way.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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