Felipe Fernández-Armesto

June 23, 2006

Thinking I might be bereft of soccer news in Massachusetts, one of my children has just sent me a round-up of the World Cup. My neighbour's television blares news of the Giants, indifferent to what happens in Germany. When the radio announcers say, "Now for the sports", data follow on the White Sox and the Red Sox but not a word about the Azzuri or les Bleus. There's much about the Mets, nought about metatarsals.

I'm happy not to be surfeited with the soccer, but US indifference poses a curious problem. I'm usually the first to decry American exceptionalism and to tell my students that their history is no more exceptional than everyone else's. Yet, in this respect, the US really is odd. Soccer is the most popular sport in just about every other country except Canada, where the primacy of ice hockey seems a clear case of climatic determinism.

North American sporting journalists insist that soccer isn't action-packed enough or high-scoring enough to satisfy American taste. These are mutually contradictory claims. Scoring interrupts a game. Basketball - one of America's favourites - alternates tiresomely between stop and go, as the game breaks up every couple of minutes to register a goal. Nor can it be true that US sports fans crave action. Anyone who has endured the tedium of American football will know that the game consists mainly of longueurs called "time out" when nothing happens on the field while cheerleaders and bands take over. The millions unenterprising enough to watch on television don't even have the cheerleaders to look at. They sit through ads.

Sometimes they will tell you that soccer is bloodless and girlie, and it is true that the game is hugely popular here with women and children - that phrase, as E. M. Forster once said, that exempts the adult male from sanity. But players of rugby union and Aussie rules think American football, with its comically protective cladding, is a game for big wimps.

The breadth of soccer's appeal, on the other hand, is so amazing that it is hard to know why it stops at the edge of America. Sport - like the rest of the culture - travels with empire. Cricket and rugger abide where the British Empire took them. I have read there are a couple of dioceses in South Africa, which had Old Wykehamist bishops in the 19th century, where the Winchester game is still played. Jai-alai is found in the Spanish imperial diaspora. Baseball is popular where the US mounted invasions and maintained garrisons in modern times - in Japan and parts of the Caribbean.

But soccer is one of a handful of games that spread across the world simply because people liked it, without anyone to impose it. Golf and tennis - though less class-permeable than soccer - have similarly wide international, cross-cultural appeal; and they are welcome in the US. So what keeps soccer out?

I think there are two main obstacles. Both should make Americans ashamed.

First, historically, soccer is tainted with unpatriotic associations - an un-American activity, a game for immigrants, played by kids in Catholic schools, watched by subscribers to foreign-language TV channels. Like it and you get suspected of a potentially treasonable feeling: nostalgia. The vigilantes of American identity who think that to qualify for citizenship you have to speak English and know the words of Yankee Doodle also think you have to like American football and baseball.

Second - and no one ever admits this - soccer is, by American standards, anticapitalist. You make money out of television advertising. But to go for 45 minutes - to half-time in a soccer match - without a commercial break is virtually unheard of in US TV. American football, with its constant suspensions of play for minutes at a time, is ideal commercial telly fodder. If soccer were allowed to take a big slice of the audience, ad time would shrink, revenues would slump and the economy would probably go into recession. So the moguls won't show it and the advertisers won't back it.

Of course, plenty of canny US capitalists have invested in hopes of a round-ball breakthrough. As the children of "soccer moms" grow up, the argument goes, they will want to stay fans of their game. And inasmuch as whatever genuinely is exceptional in America is the result of a long history of isolationism, it is reasonable to expect globalisation to break barriers down and to open the US up to soccer. After all, even cricket is taking off in some localities in North America where there are concentrations of migrants from the Indian sub-continent. But I doubt whether soccer will ever be as popular here as in most of the rest of the world, partly because I can sense a new era of isolationism in the offing and partly because I can hear my neighbour's box: the Giants have just scored again.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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