For once, I need to strike a discordant note with my colleague Jonathan Tobin about soccer (or, as most of us call it, football). The real irony of the entire NPR newsroom bursting in enthusiastic cheers as the U.S. team scores is not about US exceptionalism vs. Third Worldism and a UN-driven mentality. This is what the World Cup is about: it is the triumph of primordial nationalist allegiances over the internationalist blah-blah of the NPR newsroom (and all their traveling companions across the enlightened liberal world). If I were a Marxist, I’d attribute their enthusiasm to false conscience; since I am sane, I can only explain their outburst of national pride as evidence that their false conscience is their commitment to internationalism — a silly ideological pose whose fallacy just a game of soccer (football) can expose.
Just think about it — the first World Cup tournament took place in 1930 — the height of nationalistic jingoism in world history. Until the tournament had to be suspended because of a world war, the World Cup saw three tournaments — one in South America (not the beacon of democracy at the time) and two in Europe — in Italy and in France. Benito Mussolini took enormous satisfaction at the sight of his team winning twice in a row. Since then, the biggest soccer (football) event in the world is the World Cup — a competition between national teams that brings out the wildest and most primitive form of national allegiance one can imagine, especially among all those feckless UN fans, liberal internationalists, postmodern “let’s make love not war” crowds who scorn nationalism every single day of the four years in between one cup and the next as the root of all evils. And then, as if by magic, they dump their self-righteous moral indignation against the flag and all it stands for to wrap themselves in it with pride, joy, and not uncommonly with silly paints on their faces and all matters of bizarre and fashion-challenged clothing. Just to say they stand during the month of the World Cup for everything they loathe the rest of the time.
Just think about it — the French national team leaves in shame after it implodes due to ferocious disagreements with the coach and an abysmal performance on the pitch. France’s lead player is immediately received by the president of the republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, while the coach and the team are crucified in the press. Not by the president of the national football federation — by the president of the republic! Winners are bestowed medals, titles, national recognition, and, in cases like Pele (Brazil), Roger Milla (Cameroon), Platini (France), Beckenbauer (Germany), and Paolo Rossi (Italy,) they reach iconic status as national heroes.
All this is the quintessential expression of nationalism — that spent force Europe has turned its back to, the Third World has rhetorically fought against as the ultimate manifestation of imperialist aggression, and the NPR newsroom presumably blames for most global ills — starting, no doubt, with Israel (special dispensation to Palestinian nationalism notwithstanding).
Whether national team sport, as opposed to club sport, is “sheer humbug” is of course a matter of taste. But there is no escaping the fact that most international competitions in all sports (with the few possible exceptions of cycling, skiing, tennis, and the martial arts, which are very individualistic disciplines) attract far more attention and excitement than club sports. And that the U.S. has never sat alone and apart, isolated and removed by its exceptionalism, in such disparate disciplines as basketball, volleyball, water polo, and the likes, not to mention athletics, where in all tournaments that count, it is the national flag that matters, and not some local team or training gym.
Watching the US team join the big ones in soccer (football) should mean something else altogether (and should disturb all the useful idiots that root for American decline in the world); it means that even in a sport where America always lagged behind and ranked far below, we may see a time where American DOMINANCE takes over the world of soccer (football) as well. For this is one aspect of the exceptionalism of America — the ability to lead, excel, and triumph against the odds, to master foreign things, perfect them, and make them its own, without jingoism, chauvinism, or the cultural baggage that nationalism can have elsewhere. Three cheers for the U.S. team then — and a prayer that, before long, America’s players will conquer the heights of what once was a quintessentially European form of proud expression of national prowess.