Just like that, as the U.S. soccer team fell to a hard-fought defeat by Belgium, a whole swath of the nation returned to disliking the game, or at least being completely indifferent to it. That’s an awful thing, frankly. America needs soccer, now more than ever, and the World Cup continues on.
Soccer is a modality of a game that is as old as chess and checkers, and is expressed in different ways through football, hockey, and basketball. At the heart of each is this desire to conquer territory. The world, as distilled down to a single playing field, is split into two. One army, one nation, or one team pits itself against another, breaking through the forward phalanx, moving to seize the fortress and make claim to the other side. Hockey and football show the more brutal side of this dynamic where there is a certain need to drive down the opposing armies by force. American football does it through hard, physical determination, with players literally putting themselves up as human shields to block the invading hordes from the forward attack. In hockey, we move toward a slightly more refined version where evasion is preferrable. Skate around your opponent, not into them — but if they happen to be in your path and collision is unavoidable, that was a fate predestined by God.
Oh, and there’s that big, honking stick in your hand, like a blade of old, and if you can high-stick someone without the ref seeing it, so goes the fortunes of war.
Basketball goes even farther in the need to evade, but beyond that, it is a struggle against physics itself. Ornithologists tell us that it is virtually impossible that birds can fly. Their wings are technically unsuitable to handle the kind of lift and wind resistance required to get up and stay up. So too with basketball, where we find a game where very tall people, with considerable bone mass, regularly attempt to break the bonds of gravity. On many occasions it looks like a huge amount of effort, as Radiohead once told us, gravity always wins. But there are those few figures, legends and rightly so, who get that lift and seem to fly through the air until the commission of their goal is done: to put the ball in the hole. Only then are they relieved of their supernatural weightless state.
Soccer, or international football, is the one physical sport where the humans can make no claim to achieving flight. Evasion is the ultimate goal, to spin, to weave, to stretch the human form in metaphysical ways so that foot connects with that ball, arcs it toward the goal, and tries to sail it past the only ones allowed to use their hands, the signifier of humanness. When done right, there is a grace to it that is unmatched. This is why it is nicknamed “the beautiful game.”
It’s not always beautiful though. The act of “flopping,” or pulling up lame in a match, sometimes goes to comical extremes. We had the biting incident from Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, once more pulling a stunt even Mike Tyson has forsaken. And historically, some of the fans are brutal thugs who take the innate beauty of the game and use it as an invitation to blood sport. We’ve all heard that, as dangerous as it might be to be an official on the field, it is ten times more so off the field, after the match.
Let’s put that aside though. Let us discuss the point that America needs soccer, and needs it badly. First though, thank heaven for Canada. Through Canada, we receive some semblance of international credibility with baseball and hockey. Otherwise, most of our games are focused strictly on the Lower 48 yet we have the gall to consider these to be ultimate championships. If you are of the mind that Canada is little more than America North with free healthcare, that only makes things worse. Soccer is really our only legitimate outreach to the world in terms of sports whereby we have to rise to a certain level, instead of just accepting the level we invent for ourselves. (I realize that golf, invented in Scotland, is also an international entry, but its popularity pales in comparison to soccer.)
In this World Cup, the U.S., while not advancing to the final rounds, showed we can. We have the capacity. Before falling to Belgium, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard had 16 saves, the most in a single World Cup game since 1966. That should take nothing away from the rest of the U.S. team who proved beyond doubt that we had a right to be there. That wasn’t always the case. I firmly believe there were years of soccer-denial in our country not because we liked our sports better, but because we were no damned good at soccer. It’s easy to reject something when, deep down, you know you suck at it. Our entry this time showed we don’t suck at it, and we can continue to grow and become a force in the game.
More than our abilities, being a part of the World Cup means we can relate to the world in a new way. We are not isolationists, nor should we be. In a perfect system, baseball would open up to the Japanese in a way much more meaningful than using them as a pro forma farm team. If it is the World Series, they should be an equal league and we should play them for the win. The same goes for basketball and hockey. I don’t think football would translate. Outside of the firebreathers in rugby, I think out American Football scares the hell out of the rest of the globe. Perhaps that is for the best. I am hesitant to change anything about football because it is the symbol of fall, of getting your gear on, working up heat when it gets colder. It’s about going to war.
But soccer is about something else, and it is still going on, right now, at the peak of its form. This has been one of the most exciting World Cup events in years and, lucky for you, you can still enjoy it and do so without the stigma of being a weird outsider. It’s not just their game anymore. We all have a stake in it now.
And if you love it, you strike a blow to wrongheaded, spider-limbed shadow-harpies everywhere. That’s a bonus.