Quickly becoming a football, er, soccer power in the world, the United States will participate in its fourth consecutive World Cup finals, which begin May 31 in Korea and Japan. Soccer is not seen as an American sport, and the history of the country’s relationship to the sport is generally unknown. We are all aware of the triumph in the Women’s World Cup in 1999. We have heard of the “soccer mom”; we see the game becoming a part of the general landscape because it is being played just about everywhere and by everyone, and the greatest indicator of its growth is its use in commercials. Still, the game is seen as “foreign” and “un-American.” But that perception is wrong. Today more people in the U.S. play soccer than any other sport. It still trails at the box office, but time will heal all that. Why, then, has the idea of soccer being foreign persisted even when the United States hosted the World Cup finals for men and women in 1994 and 1999, respectively, and has been a member of the sport’s worldwide governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), since 1913?
The U.S., after all, played in the very first World Cup, in Uruguay in 1930, losing 7-1 to Argentina in the semifinals. The U.S. was also in Italy in 1934. It missed the 1938 finals in France because war was brewing in Europe, and the tourney didn’t resume in a soccer-hungry world until 1950 in Brazil, where the Americans beat mighty England in an early match and the host country lost to Uruguay in the finals before a crowd of 174,000.
The Americans’ 1-0 win over England in 1950 seemed to put soccer on the progressive path in this country—until plastic patriotism, symbolized by Joe McCarthy, began to blanket the country. In a world just emerging from war, soccer in the U.S. was the passion of immigrant Germans and Italians, still trying to shake off the label of bad guys. Like the “red menace,” soccer was seen in some quarters as foreign inspired. The sport wasn’t native to America, and it wasn’t a sport of the elites, as were tennis and golf. It was the game of the masses—the foreign masses, and it brought out a very American xenophobia.
Too bad for Americans, because soccer really is democratic. Height and weight don’t particularly matter; skill does. Its best players can do with their feet, while running at full throttle, things Michael Jordan would find impossible to do with his hands. The climate’s changing, though. Like a phoenix, soccer is shedding the ashy veil cast over it a half-century ago. Today America has the best women’s professional league in the world, the WUSA, and one of the best men’s pro leagues in the hemisphere, the MLS.
On June 5, coach Bruce Arena’s national team kicks off against Portugal in South Korea. The U.S. will be asleep, but it may awaken to the good news of the unlikely Americans drawing or even defeating mighty Portugal. And how quickly we will forget the foreignness of soccer. These days, it’s even safe to predict that the U.S. will make it to the round of 16. And here’s another prediction: Soccer will become a primary passion, and Americans will become devotees of “the beautiful game.” Yes, we will have soccer to kick around.