Sunday, June 11, 2006

The World Cup and American Exceptionalism.

Last Friday the World Cup kicked off with the opening ceremony in Munich. Most Americans do not realize that “soccer”– and “football” everywhere else – is a quasi universal religion in the rest of the world. In fact they’re oblivious to it as this recent survey confirms:

According to a recent survey, only 44% knew that the World Cup would take place in Germany and only 11 % plan to watch it. In 2002, 3.9 million Americans watched the World Cup compared with 95 millions who watched the Super Bowl.

The paradox, noted by this week’s Economist is that “the country that dominates the world’s popular culture is hopelessly marginal when it comes to the world’s most popular sport”.

Admittedly even if the situation of soccer has greatly improved in the US in the 10 years or so, it remains a “foreign sport”. Why is that?

Well for one thing, sports are an essential tool of education in the US. – American sports that is. Sport in America is in many ways the core of social integration for kids and in fact, you will remain on the fringe of society if you don’t play some sport – preferably baseball or (American) football.

Sport is supposed to teach kids ethical and social values. As such, and in a country that sees itself as unique and “exceptional” (i.e. God’s country), only truly national sports can really carry American values. So the reluctance to play a “foreign sport” makes sense. It is coherent with America’s history of assimilation which often implies abandoning foreign sports in favor of American pastimes. So in a way, playing sports America conceived and developed itself is perceived as a form of patriotism.

Even today soccer remains way behind American sports. It is mostly played by either rich kids in wealthy suburbs (think of the phrase soccer mom first used in the mid-90s) or Latinos in inner-cities. As you can read in this Slate article, soccer has also become popular in the American intellectual elite. That’s probably because of its cosmopolitan and iconoclastic image:

"There's a strong, strong element of working-class chic in American fandom," says David Plotz, Slate's resident soccer obsessive. "It's like fake macho for smarty-pantses."

Surely, soccer players look more like regular people than your regular muscle monster NFL stars or beanpole NBA players. That also may partly explain why even today, a lot of Americans think soccer is wimpy – a sport for girls! Another reason is the penalty-fakers (those players who can be in sheer agony at one moment and once the referees have decided to issue a penalty they jump up, suddenly and spectacularly uninjured and will kick the ball over to his teammate and move on.). That sort of flopping is certainly looked down upon in the American culture which scorns weakness, lying and theatricality.

Not all "sheer agony" is theatrical. Look at !French player Cissé's breaking tibia last Wed.

In any case, I think most Americans don’t even know enough about soccer to know what a “penalty faker” is. Most of them think soccer is still jut a "bunch of foreigners running up and down a meadow and only occasionally finding the goal at the far end" (here).

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NOTE: The earliest documented version of football or soccer is Cu-ju in China but today’s game was standardized in mid-19th century Britain in the private independent schools of England.
The accepted origin of the word "soccer" is that it is a contraction of the word "Association" with reference to "Association Football". The word is supposed to have evolved in University slang, created by shortening the word "Association" and adding "er". They had other expressions such as "brekkers" for "breakfast" and "rugger" for "rugby."
That’s sort of a strange explanation – even though “asser” sound really bad, why “soccer”? An altenative theory is that the word "socc" used to mean "shoe” in Medieval English. In fact, no one really knows…

NOTE 2: The largest sporting organization in the world is the international governing body of football (soccer) is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, universally known by its acronym FIFA. FIFA was founded in Paris on May 21, 1904 — the French name and acronym persist to this day, even outside French-speaking countries.

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