Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Soccer, Nationalism, and America

The debate today has sparked two thoughts in particular about soccer and the American left. One is that, for the rest of the world, soccer is absolutely about nationalism. People have their favorite individual teams within their countries, and many fans root for professional teams across borders, especially in Europe. But there is a robust body of nationalist chants chorused by fans when teams meet for cross-border play. Cheering on the team from one’s own country is only half the fun; equally necessary is denigrating the other team or poking fun at its nation’s history. Popular chants for English fans include this one (to the tune of “Camptown Races”), when playing a German team:

Two World Wars and one World Cup
Doo dah, doo dah
Two World Wars and one World Cup
Doo dah, doo dah day

This one is chanted at French fans:

If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts
If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts
If it wasn’t for the English
Wasn’t for the English
If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts!

These are the more printable chants. Often the French and English keep it simpler and merely yell “Hastings!” and “Agincourt!” at each other. That causes American internationalists to swoon with delight, but it wouldn’t translate to the American condition at all. Yanks would feel like fools going down to Mexico and shouting “Veracruz!” at the fans there, and like imperialist heels hollering “Anzio!” or “Bulge!” — or perhaps, monstrously, “Dresden!” — at Europeans.

National and ethnic taunts are endemic to soccer fandom; see here, here, and here for a sampling. This survey leads to my second point: that the soccer phenomenon fails to resonate culturally with Americans precisely because of the exceptionalist character the left wants us to shed. Much of what drives our culture of exceptionalism is pure geography. Our continental expanse, our few and friendly neighbors, the great oceans on our flanks; these factors fostering exceptionalism are also opposite to the ones that encourage soccer to thrive. The left can’t do much about them. But while we may not have the limiting geography of Brazil, Germany, Italy, or England, the left would like us to act as if we did.

The truth, however, is that it would be uniquely offensive for Americans to roam the world’s soccer stadiums taunting other nations’ fans with our past political victories and their defeats. It would hurt because it would matter. That, ultimately, is what the American left finds distasteful. A flip side of that coin is that we don’t have nearly as much of a psychological need to channel nationalist yearnings and ethnic triumphalism into team sports.

Except, apparently, for the employees of NPR. I understand Emanuele Ottolenghi’s sentiment — that it’s good to see leftists letting their inner nationalist come out — but the problem is that the form of nationalism they approve of has a poor record of actually doing what the nation-state is good for: defending political liberty. I’ll take our American nationalism — and the goofy, sometimes autarchic sports exceptionalism that comes with it.