Soccer and the Meaning of America

Team USA plays Ghana in the 2010 World CupI begin writing these reflections on Saturday morning several hours before the United States meets the Black Stars from Ghana in World Cup competition. I have the delightful opportunity to gather with some of my kids and grandkids over burgers and stuff to watch what is billed as an incredible sporting event in U.S. history. Imagine that. This is soccer. I find myself swept up in all of this. I find myself slightly emotional, along with a lot of Americans.

By the time I finish this post, of course, today’s game will be over, and my bubble just might burst, but for a few minutes, I want to think about the implications of soccer and America.

After the stunning win over Algeria in the 91st minute in last Wednesday’s match, The Wall Street Journal carried a story on Thursday with the title “The Americans Have Landed.” “After such a week,” says the author, a week “of throbbing controversy,” Landon Donovan, who grew up in American youth soccer, “kicked a hole in the ancient force field of prejudice that has always kept Americans from fully embracing the world’s game.” This incredible moment sent a “joyous ripple across the ocean — the sort of moment that makes people remember where they were when it happened.”

This was quite an event: America on the world soccer stage; Americans truly introduced to the passion of soccer; America introduced to something the world cares about; America as an underdog; America actually winning at world soccer.

I didn’t play soccer as a kid. I am part of the generation of parents that spent endless hours, in the rain, on the sidelines, patiently watching my boys learn the game. Kids love this game, of course — especially if they start early. Because we grew up with football, basketball, and baseball, my generation wanted more goals. Please, give us more goals. Standing in all that soggy grass, I learned the rules quickly, but the soul and nuance of the game didn’t penetrate the heart for a long time.

Now perhaps things have changed. Perhaps America has arrived on the scene of world soccer. Perhaps we’ve got a whole generation and more that grew up with soccer, in America, of all places. Perhaps we can embrace this sport as the world embraces the game. Perhaps.

But what I liked about Wednesday’s game goes beyond the game itself. One of the cable news channels showed a screen with about six cutouts of sports bars around the country at the moment Donovan’s goal went into the net. All over the country, people were on the same wavelength, cheering and shouting and pumping the fist like Tiger Woods over a birdie on the 17th.

I thought, this is good. Somehow America was brought together. We needed that. Despite the dispiriting reports of continued joblessness, the intractable spew of oil spills, and the endless sputtering of financial recovery — we were brought together as a nation with some innocent, unadulterated joy and pride.

And then there is something else I liked: We were able to genuinely cheer for ourselves. For any number of complex reasons Americans so often have a hard time cheering for ourselves. There is something deep in our culture that is not good about this. Because of our sometimes inappropriate swagger in the world, we often turn to our attention and sympathies to the underdog, and someone else is always the underdog. In this case it would certainly be Ghana with its 24 million people, Algeria with some 35 million. In size and national weight and prosperity, these were the true underdogs.

But, no, on these days America was the underdog. Everyone was aware that the other nations knew soccer deep in their culture, and we did not. When it comes to world soccer, we are always coming up against a giant, and losing. We were the underdogs in these matches. America came to the contest last Wednesday the humble one. And this time, from that lowly posture, we won.

And so I ask: Can we come together to enjoy this win? Can we be appropriately proud? Can we find a new posture in the world as determined and focused, and, yes, as an underdog? This was a good moment for America. I know that rubs against some sensibilities that want to see America as always in the wrong and always with too much swagger. But this was a good moment for American soccer — and a good moment for America.

Well . . . I now know . . . of course, the results of Sunday’s disappointing loss to Ghana are in. We lost. But that doesn’t change all of this, does it? I hope not. Let me know what you think.