It’s hard to gauge quite how much of the USA takes any notice of a World Cup; coverage in the mainstream media often seems faintly bemused, as if this thing the rest of the world is interested in is entirely incomprehensible. While football isn’t the marginal sport it once was in the States, and certainly isn’t only found in the post-industrial outcrops and distant immigrant suburbs Joseph O’Neill finds cricket inhabiting in his 2006 novel Netherland, it is nonetheless a sport that remains not quite part of the national consciousness. This might be because the American national narrative of new beginnings and the erasure of past ties extends to the sports of the old countries as well as other markers of identity. Never mind that the country is inhabited by descendants of settlers from all over Europe, America prefers to invent its own sports and then imagine them as world ones. Indeed, America has a strange relationship to its sports; it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exporting them across the planet like it does with its food and pop culture and foreign policy; instead it rather forlornly calls its equivalent of the cricket county championship the “World Series.” Bobby Thomson’s 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” is conspicuously only called that by Americans, and refers less to baseball’s global appeal than to the fact that American servicemen stationed overseas were listening to the Giants-Dodgers game on the radio.
This being said, not all Americans subscribe to the national narrative. Traditions and connections to the old countries remain, and if football in the US is often the preserve of the white middle-classes (in stark contrast to its working class and immigrant roots in Europe), it is also true that some of the most devoted fans of the sport in America are those who support teams other than the US national team. Only the other day, the attendance for England’s friendly against Honduras in Miami was bulked out by thousands of Hondurans who live in Florida. It would be interesting to see one of those maps that populate the internet – ones devoted to charting specific phenomena in minute detail, from the most popular music state-by-state to the county-by-county recording of voting patterns – that showed which communities supported which teams at the World Cup. Do the Scandinavian communities in Minnesota support the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes? What about the South Koreans and Japanese on the west coast? The Italians in New York?
Of course there is a narrative about the American ‘soccer’ team, one which is unsurprisingly and rather dispiritingly a sporting version of the national narrative of progress and excellence – one day, once it puts its mind to it, America will win the World Cup; that they haven’t already is really more to do with will than talent. The current coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, though, understands that lack of American success in footballing circles is not just down to wanting it enough. The game in the US is still years behind Europe and South America in very basic ways. As he said in a recent article in the Guardian, when he took the job in 2011, football “was still connected to the other big American sports, where there are seasonal sports – four, five months this game, then you play basketball, then you play baseball. So they don’t have the 10/11-month seasons like the football powerhouses in the world. USA kids never really develop that rhythm of the game in the same way, the stamina and the pure focus on the game.” This takes time, and Klinsmann’s job is as much about instilling in American kids the patterns and behaviours that are second nature in Europe and elsewhere as it is coaching the current team.
The USA won’t win the World Cup this year, or for the foreseeable future – if ever – and this is partly due to another narrative of American soccer, one that is familiar from the club side of the game but in Klinsmann’s remarks also present at the national level. Football in America is reliant on importing talent and expertise from elsewhere; it is a game trying to catch up with those “powerhouses” rather than striking out on its own. This has been the case for some time, and if you ask the average football fan about the game in the States, they’ll probably talk of fading stars from Europe going over for a valedictory year or two at the end of their careers, from Pele at the New York Cosmos in the 1970s to Beckham at LA Galaxy and Thierry Henry at New York Red Bulls. In fact those club names say a lot about the differences between the game in the US and elsewhere, names which are familiar more from basketball and baseball than football’s Uniteds, Wanderers and Harriers. There’s something in these latter names that bespeaks an embedded history to the game that simply doesn’t exist in America. It’s even more true with nicknames: the Addicks, the Cobblers and the Gas refer to a South London fish and chip shop, Northampton’s shoe-making industries, and the position of a stadium in Bristol next to a gasworks. Team-names and nicknames are loci of club histories, and if they already evoke long-gone geographical or industrial pasts, they are especially important now that the game is becoming ever more globalised – witness the recent furore about Hull City’s proposed name change. (The same goes for team colours, too, as Vincent Tan has discovered). The Gas – Bristol Rovers – no longer play at Eastville stadium. It’s an Ikea now, but the gasworks are still there and everyone still talks of Rovers fans as Gasheads. David Beckham may be forming a team in Miami, but I can’t see it being called the Miami Academicals.
It seems to me that the US doesn’t quite know what it thinks – and feels – about football. In that Guardian article, Klinsmann says that MLS players don’t have the connection with the fans that other countries’ players do, where they’re more likely to be accosted in the street on Monday if they lose on Saturday. The US hasn’t not won the World Cup just because it hasn’t put its mind to it; it hasn’t won the World Cup because the game is still, for all the MLS’s recent improvements, an oddity on the American sporting landscape. Those layered pasts that are the hope for the ordinary football fan in Europe – and inspire and give impetus to the formation of teams like FC United of Manchester – aren’t present in the States, and the worry is that it will simply bypass them and move directly to the amorphous global entity it is becoming elsewhere. After all, globalisation began in America.
Posted by Mark West