Daniel W. Drezner

Please, dear Lord, do not let soccer become an American obsession

Please, dear Lord, do not let soccer become an American obsession

The USA’s thrilling, last-minute victory over Algeria yesterday seemed tailor-made for pushing the popularity of the sport in this country to the next level.  Americans like winners, but they really like last-minute, come-from-behind winners, and this American team seems to excel in that area. 

On the other hand…. I’m not sure I really want Americans to care that much about what happens on a soccer field football pitch.  To see why, consider this Steven Erlanger story in the New York Times about how the French elite has reacted to that country’s ignominious exit from the World Cup

The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who has often criticized the failures of French assimilation, compared the players to youths rioting in the banlieues, France’s suburban ghettos. “We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,” he said in a radio interview.

While most politicians have talked carefully of values and patriotism, rather than immigration and race, some legislators blasted the players as “scum,” “little troublemakers” and “guys with chickpeas in their heads instead of a brain,” according to news reports.

Fadela Amara, the junior minister for the racially charged suburbs who was born to Algerian parents, warned on Tuesday that the reaction to the team’s loss had become racially charged.

“There is a tendency to ethnicize what has happened,” she told a gathering of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing party, according to news reports. “Everyone condemns the lower-class neighborhoods. People doubt that those of immigrant backgrounds are capable of respecting the nation.”

She criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of a debate on “national identity,” warning that “all democrats and all republicans will be lost” in this ethnically tinged criticism about Les Bleus, the French team. “We’re building a highway for the National Front,” she said, in a reference to the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen….

Mr. Sarkozy himself called a meeting on the disastrous result on Wednesday, summoning Prime Minister Francois Fillon, Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot and Rama Yade, the junior sports minister. In a statement, he said he had ordered them “to rapidly draw the lessons of this disaster.”

Now, to be fair, there have been a few moments in the past when a US team has performed so abysmally on the global stage that it prompted a minor, ugly political kerfuffle (I’m thinking of the 2000 Olympic men’s basketball team).  Still, in order, here’s what I don’t want to see happen in the United States: 

1.  Philosophers using a national team’s sporting performance to opine about the state of the union;

2.  Any politician blaming the performance of a national sports team on the country’s government;

3.  A Minister of Sport;

4.  A head of state summoning the head of government and other policy principals to discuss the broad socioeconomic lessons that can be drawn from the failures of a f***ing football team

The Nation‘s Dave Zirin bemoans the ways in which events like the World Cup promote jingoism and nationalism in the United States, but he’s aiming at the wrong target.  Americans will celebrate the successes of team USA and within 24 hours forget the failures.  The ways in which the rest of the world inflate the importance of this event as some august commentary on their country’s national standing are beyond silly.  Wars, assassinations, and stock market downturns have been (sort of) started because of this kind of silliness.   

I’ll take American semi-engagement with soccer over French obsession any day of the week, thank you very much.