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The World Cup and American Exceptionalism

Jonathan, it took me a while to read your response to my response to your response — I am watching football!

Far from me the thought that a game of football is anything more than a game of football.

For those who like football, the World Cup is the most epic tournament of all — the concentration of talent on the pitch and intensity of the emotions around the pitch is unprecedented. You either like it or not, of course, but to question the wisdom of club team versus national team is besides the point. It’s been like that since 1930, and nobody wants to change it, because it is simply an exciting spectacle that hundreds of millions of people around the world wait for and watch religiously every four years.

America has not been privy to this extravagance for a long time — but look at the U.S. team. Before the World Cup came to the United States, the U.S. only moonlighted with semi-professional teams that would suffer basketball-score defeats. Since then, the American team has been steadily rising. It now plays in the big league. It is a remarkable accomplishment.

Are there political implications to the game? There should be none, whatsoever — although there was a war once because of a match. But the fans — and their passions — attest to a deep-seated sentiment of national pride, which in turn explains the popularity of the World Cup contest. The way that victory and defeat is taken is another testament to the power of nationalist feelings and patriotic pride — and all the better that it is expressed through peaceful enthusiasm and playful banter against adversaries, especially the old ones.

The interesting point is another one, and has little to do with the use of the flag by governments. If tyrannies ever tried to exploit the game for their own aggrandizement, they did not accomplish much. In recent decades, the only country I can think of that won a World Cup and was a dictatorship was Argentina in 1978 (Maggie Thatcher took care of them, eventually). And Communism never produced a winner — ideology always stands in the way of complex game strategies, bouts of individual creativeness, and the need to adjust quickly.

The interesting point is that it is often in those enlightened societies that reject patriotism as outdated and pernicious on philosophical grounds — Western Europe being a primary location, the newsroom of NPR a secondary one — that the World Cup unleashes patriotism in a way that no other sport competition in the world ever does, not even the Olympics. This raises an interesting question, first and foremost for those left-wing promoters of flower power who think nationalism is both pernicious and on the wane. The World Cup awakens the sentiment where leftists think there is none left (or there should not be, i.e., even in their own newsroom). And that, to me, is a good thing — it highlights the fallacy of the post-national, postmodern worldview, especially because all it takes is 22 men in shorts chasing a football to demonstrate this fine point of political philosophy.

As for the U.S., my point is even less ambitious. To see it join the big league as a serious contender to me is refreshing not because a victory for the United States (unlikely this time, by the way) would bring pride and prestige to democracy, or because of what it may or may not demonstrate about American nationalism or America’s sudden abandonment of its exceptionalism. In fact, I think it proves American exceptionalism. Given how late America comes to football and how quickly it rises from obscurity to success, it would be yet another sign of certain characteristics that make America so unique. It would prove how fast and successful America is in mastering all things foreign and seamlessly integrating them in its own unique national fabric; it would offer yet another proof of immigrants becoming the standard bearers of American patriotism — just look at who plays for the national team and you’ll see my point; and of sport being a ticket for them into the pantheon of all American heroes.

All in all a good thing — and one that a club-team international competition with the LA Galaxy beating the Muloudia Club d’Alger is not likely to engender.



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