Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: Why America needs to care about soccer

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Opinions Editor
Thursday, November 16, 2017

The nation of Italy is in bad shape. A paroxysm of despair has overcome her people; her newspapers bemoan an imminent “apocalypse,” as her loudest commentators race to dissect shortcomings in Italian culture. No, the country has not suffered some sort of humanitarian tragedy — no political convulsions, no recessions, no nationwide tax on mozzarella. Instead, something far more unthinkable has happened: This week, Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup.

The United States actually suffered the same fate a little over a month ago, when the U.S. Men’s National Team scored an own goal and lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago. (I mean no disrespect, but for the love of all that is holy, Trinidad and Tobago won one match out of nine in the weeks leading up to the contest with the United States. They were, literally, among the worst in the regional competition.) Most Americans, however, didn’t seem to care about how horrendous this defeat truly was. Unlike our woebegone friends in Italy, we didn’t embark on a national program of self-flagellation or scrutinize the sorry state of American soccer. Our incompetence barely registered.

Even when American soccer players succeed mightily in international competition, they still go underappreciated. The women’s team, for example, is one of the best teams in the world and has notched three World Cups, but still faces discrimination in pay. That apathy is a problem, not just for aspiring American soccer players, but for the United States at large. Our continued indifference toward soccer reflects a much deeper pathology in the American worldview: We are simply incapable of meeting the world on its own terms and participating meaningfully in traditions that we do not already monopolize. But on a planet where American power — both military and geopolitical — is facing new pressure, and where our global hegemony is no longer an immutable reality, our continued cultural arrogance will spell our undoing. The truth is, if we want to stay relevant, we have to find new ways of connecting with the world. That means accepting the global consensus on climate change, admitting that not everyone in the world aspires to become American and, yes — that means caring about soccer.

Why Americans are so indifferent, sometimes even hostile, to the very concept of soccer is perplexing. Millions of American children play soccer. Major League Soccer is currently enjoying exponential growth, with the average club valued at $185 million — a 400 percent boost from 2008. And more people play soccer than any other sport in the world. It’s easy to play — you don’t need any manicured greens or specialized courts. It accommodates all age groups, all genders and varying team sizes. Even better, it doesn’t expose players to serious, long-term neurological damage. In effect, soccer is probably the most accessible sport that people play. Still, professional soccer is nowhere close to capturing the American imagination in the way other sports have — and that may have something to do with our country’s reflexive hatred for anything remotely collectivistic. One scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, claims that “soccer and socialism go hand in hand.” Conservative activist Ann Coulter laments the fact that soccer does not risk serious injury, fails to reward individual achievement as much as teamwork and often results in ties.

While Coulter has never been known for her nuanced takes on culture — or humanity, for that matter — there is merit to the notion that soccer requires a different set of priorities than American sports. Football, basketball and baseball emphasize short-term tactics; plays, possessions and innings are, after all, discrete, self-contained events. But soccer is entirely distinct. It is continuous, with only a break at the half. Play is fluid and free-flowing, and requires a coherent strategy for the entire length of the game, not merely for isolated bursts of action. Further, soccer, as a rule, demands self-abnegation. Individual heroics do not win soccer matches; passing, generosity and restraint do. As such, soccer and American sports are underpinned by two separate value systems: individualism versus collectivism, tactical improvisation versus strategic patience.

By embracing soccer, we might learn a thing or two about the intangible, unspoken principles that guide others — and, in turn, better inform our own approach to the world. We might even be able to harness the diplomatic dividends, in the form of goodwill and admiration, from a more robust presence in world soccer. Christian Pulisic, an American 19-year-old midfielder for German soccer club Borussia Dortmund, exemplifies this potential. The youngest American to score a goal for USMNT, and the youngest player to score in the Bundesliga, Pulisic is already making a name for himself in Europe. And it certainly helps to have a popular American in a country where only 22 percent of people trust the United States as an ally.

Look, I’m not criticizing American values and all of their associated benefits — I promise. But as commercial and cultural exchange come to dominate global life in the 21st century, we would do well, as a nation, to learn to negotiate the unfamiliar, instead of automatically dismissing alternatives to our values as debased or immoral. Indeed, my dream of an America that is a premier force in soccer has less to do with the sport itself and more with the internationalist, convivial mentality that caring about soccer might induce.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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