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.


Categories: America, Culture, Soccer

20 replies

  1. Love the recent soccer world championship. I think that the US Team did very well. Looking forward to the final now.

  2. Dr. Eaton,
    Thank you for writing in your blog. Whenever I read your posts, I find them to be encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking. As an SPU graduate, I know that you take our school’s motto very seriously. I saw it as a student and I do now as an alumnus. This blog is a tangible way that you engage our culture. Unfortunately, people often think of academia as a community that is isolated from the world. SPU breaks the mold in the way its faculty and students seek world change through their education. Keep it up! You are an inspiration to me as I strive to change our world by showing people Christ’s love. I am trying to emulate your teaching style in a blog of my own and in my church youth ministry. Thanks again for being such a positive role model to so many young people (myself included).

  3. Thanks for the great post. I particularly appreciated your articulation of the state of an American culture that has a hard time cheering for itself. I spent Canada Day in Whistler, BC where the people were truly proud to be Canadian. And last night, fireworks graced the Fourth of July skies on Camano Island, but I suspect that a majority of those lighting fuses and enjoying the spectacle were not reflecting on our freedoms nor our independence.
    I also wonder why this phenomenon you describe is overall less prevalent in the small towns of America. Perhaps the answer is entwined in the “number of complex reasons” you mentioned.

  4. Soccer is not popular in US. Most Americans are more familiar with American football. Once soccer is getting more popular, US soccer team will do better for future.

  5. Dr. Eaton –

    What a magnificent article! Since 1994, I’ve been saying that soccer is on the cusp of a huge wave of popularity…and I’ve waited and waited for it to crest. And, I waited. Finally, in this World Cup, when the media embraced the event and provided a platform that is worthy of its place, I started to believe again. We’re finally turning the corner of a soccer culture where players who grew up on the game are making the business decisions. Hence, the opportunity presents itself and the sport will flourish from here.

    My favorite quote, which I think encapsulates almost all parents who stand on the sidelines: “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.”

    Soccer has something. I’m not sure what it is, but it brings out the passion in fans around the world…and I think it finally seeped into enough American hearts this time around.

    The Coach

  6. To be honest I think the US team was lucky to draw against England – thanks to the ‘great’ keeper Rob Green. But after that their performance was quite well, I really did not expect them to go into the knockout stage.

    So, well done US. Hope this will bring more attention to this sport in the US.

  7. Even with the results it’s doesn’t change a thing.

    Our team was in Peru doing mission work during championship and they were thrilled with the contest.

    Often we get so wrapped up in the win that we forget to celebrate the focus it takes to just get to the game!


  8. The essence of the game is to fight. There is only one winner at the end but what matter is how you fight to get there. Its a team game, every team share the same soul.
    My wife come from south America, where the game is almost a religion. In this sport, you cannot count on technology to win, only the rage to win you have inside will help you.
    I think we can be proud to play on the same ground as the rest of the planet and we must learn to be humble and train harder.

  9. “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.”

    Sports and athletes have not only the capacity to take our minds of things but the ability to inspire us to come together and over come them, as the underdog does in great sporting stories.

    Great post. Glad I found it.


  10. I love soccer and I definitely love AMERICA!

  11. There is even more good news: FIFA will be touring stadiums in Washington, Miami, Dallas, Houston and New York early in September as part of the process to select the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Right now though, 2022 for the USA seems to be the most likely bet…

  12. From the post:

    “on these days America was the underdog….”

    “This was a good moment for America…”

    My comments:

    I think that, when you’re on top, you often lose the motivation you need to be your personal best. Whether or not you ARE the best isn’t the issue. The issue is whether or not you are actually achieving the fullness of your current potential.

    Soccer is one of those rare arena’s where America isn’t on top. I think it’s good for us. I think American’s take our wealth, power, and achievement for granted … and I fear for the future of young Amercans who don’t have the drive to become their personal best — because they assume they already are the best.

    But in soccer, we clearly are not. I in no way wish for the “decrease” of America. But I do wish for young people to maintain that drive to be everything they possibly can be.

  13. I wish soccer was more popular on the professional level in the US too. Like Mike said above, well done and hopefully this win brings more attention to the game over here.

  14. Hi
    Soccer is one sport that has changed the face of the world into peace. everyone loves this sport, and we’re lucky there’s always the World Cup. Thanks.

  15. “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.”

  16. With the huge numbers of children playing soccer, the sport will certainly blossom in the future. Will it ever rival the NFL as a spectator sport? Probably not, but it certainly will increase in popularity.

  17. Football is the most famous sport in the world, it brings countries together and people together. The money generated has helped communities build better facilities for children growing up. The only downside for us England fans is that we haven’t won it since 1966!!

  18. The game is more about possession, similar to hockey. Basketball is the complete opposite, lots of scoring and a 24 second shot clock.

  19. Soccer will eventually become more popular in North America, as the millions who have played as children become spectator-age.

  20. I am from Scotland and find it very strange that Soccer (or football as we call it) is not massive in the US. It is the most watched sport in the world yet America has never taken it to their hearts. Although popularity is increasing in the US it will be interesting to see if it will ever rival their native sports such as NFL.

    If America did fully embrace football and it became one of their most popular sports then surely they could be one of the best teams in the world as their resources would be huge and they would be able to invest in bringing through generations of talented footballers.

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