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Soccer: An away game


The United States just became very isolated from the rest of the world. It's not because of the war in Iraq or differences over the policy toward Iran. It's because of soccer.

In almost every other country on the globe, the next month will be a semi-vacation. Rather than going about their quotidian tasks, people will be huddled around TVs and radios, paying close attention to every game of soccer's quadrennial World Cup - and then spending endless hours afterward analyzing the various nuances of the contests.

In the U.S., there will be the pockets of passion for the tournament that started Friday (the U.S. plays its first match tomorrow, against the Czech Republic). There is no doubt there will be more attention paid than ever before.

But, on the whole, the country will go about its business as usual.

The passion for soccer reaches right up to our borders, but it fails to take root when it tries to grow in the 50 United States. The sports acreage in America - among the most fertile in the world - has been filled with other flourishing pastimes, making it difficult for soccer to find a place to grow.

"Basically, there are three sports in the hegemonic sports culture of the United States," says Andrei Markovits, referring to baseball, football and basketball. "Three-and-a-half if you count ice hockey.

"These are the ones that create the traditions and the history and the smells and involvement and passion in a way that goes way beyond the activities of the producers of the sports themselves," says Markovits, a professor of politics at the University of Michigan who literally wrote the book on why the U.S. has never taken to soccer - Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism.

"Soccer has always been played in America, but it has never become part of that hegemonic sports culture," he says. "It's like the shot put."

According to Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies who wrote The Meaning of Sports, "Baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey got here first and established themselves. There is not all that much space left."

Certainly, soccer occupies a bigger space than it used to. As Markovits says, it has become like the Olympics. Americans treat soccer as they do track and field or gymnastics or speed skating during the Summer and Winter Games - raising their awareness during the World Cup, but essentially forgetting about it in the years in between.

Many thought it would be different by now. After all, it has been a generation since the most popular sport in the world became a mainstay of suburban America. Millions of kids grow up kicking a ball and learning the offside rule. The term "soccer mom" is a certified cliche.

That growth has in many ways done exactly what it was supposed to. You don't have to strain your eyes on the tiny agate type of the sports pages to find out results, as you did a couple of decades ago.

All the games are televised. Watching the World Cup once meant going to smoky locales for a closed-circuit telecast.

There is an established professional league in this country - the latest of many attempts at that. And the U.S. national team, a surprise when it made it through the qualifying rounds and got to the World Cup in 1990, is now expected to qualify.

And that team is made up of genuine native Americans who grew up playing the game, not the motley assortment that dominated the roster a few World Cups ago - players who qualified for U.S. soccer citizenship but were raised in Europe.

What soccer has not become is part of the national discussion in the way the big three sports are.

"The game is almost incidental to the importance of a sport," Markovits says. "What is much more important is the talk about the game, the worry, the waiting."

In short, soccer has not become part of the American myth. It does not resonate beyond the playing field the way the dominant sports do. You just don't hear people debating the choice between Bobby Convey and DeMarcus Beasley like they do that between Steve McNair and Kyle Boller.

"If you play the game just for the sake of the game, and it is not anchored in other aspects of the culture, it can't sustain you in the same way," says David Andrews, a sociologist of sports at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As sports historians such as Allen Guttman of Amherst College tell the story, what we now know as organized sport was essentially invented between 1860 and 1930. Rules were standardized, leagues formed, jerseys designed, stadiums constructed, the entire apparatus of the modern sports structure created.

During that time, the United States was an oddity - a country that was once a European colony, now independent, with an industrializing economy that was able to produce its own sports infrastructure. Unlike former colonies all over the world, it did not adopt the European sports, mainly English exports - it came up with its own. So, we have football instead of rugby or soccer; baseball - complete with the Abner Doubleday myth about its American origins - instead of cricket; and the one true American invention, basketball, now a popular export.

The simplicity of soccer helped it become the lingua franca of the world's sports. Playing its own oddly evolved games, the United States had no other nations to play, so it never developed a tradition of national teams representing the nation's pride.

The emotion that would be invested in a soccer match between Germany and Holland in Europe would in the United States be focused on, say, the Texas-Oklahoma football game; or, on a different level, on rivalries such as Notre Dame-Southern California, Georgia-Georgia Tech or even Harvard-Yale.

Our primary loyalties are to our hometown teams - the Baltimore Orioles, the New York Yankees - with national squads taking a back seat.

It's just the opposite in the rest of the world.

The World Cup, first played in 1930, became the main canvas for soccer to paint its picture of international sporting dominance.

Here, countries could demonstrate their national character through their teams' performance. The former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America established themselves. As African countries became independent in the 1960s, their teams became important sources of national identity.

There was one opportunity for the World Cup to establish a soccer mythology in the United States. That was in 1950, when the U.S. squad unbelievably upset the English . But that news barely made a blip in an America that was quite comfortable with its international image just after World War II and had turned its attention inward. The story might have been different had it been the U.S. beating Germany in 1938.

Then it might have had the power of West Germany's 1954 win, seen as an important restoration of pride less than a decade after the end of World War II. Or England's 1966 victory, an assertion of national ascendence just as that country was giving up the last of its empire.

There is something to be said for such sporting nationalism. Andrews noticed it on a recent visit to his native England.

"It seemed like everyone, from grannies to 8-year-olds, was wearing the national colors," he says. "It was nice."

But there is a downside too. When West Germany won in 1954, many began singing words banned after the Nazis' defeat. Last Sunday, The New York Times chronicled the growing incidents of racism that accompany these nationalist sentiments onto the soccer pitch.

And Andrews points out the chant heard when England - which has won only the one World Cup - plays Germany, which has won three: "One World Cup, two World Wars."

Yelling out "O" during the national anthem at Orioles' games seems innocent by comparison.

The open question is whether soccer will ever invade the American consciousness in the manner of the big three sports.

Guttman thinks it's possible. "Globalization isn't going to be a purely Americanizing process," he says in an e-mail. "This country is receiving as well as sending cultural influences."

And he notes that the U.S. women's team, which attracted huge interest when it won the Women's World Cup in 1999, can lead the way.

"The most interesting thing about the increasing salience of soccer in the U.S. is that it's not coded 'masculine' as it is elsewhere in the world," he says.

Markovits - speaking from Vienna as he prepared to attend 16 World Cup games - says that he would love for the U.S. attitude to change.

"I would say that a necessary but not sufficient condition is for the men to win the World Cup or to go down in some amazing semi-final to Brazil or England or Germany, 4-3, in a legendary match," he says.

"Shy of that, it is just going to be a wonderful activity, a pastime," he says.

"People will play it; 17-plus million of them do now. And people will follow it, but not in the same way that they follow other sports, that makes them call up sports radio and berate the coach for not playing the bench more."

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