The Daily

World Cup 2014

Hooray for Losers

July 2, 2014 | by

Austria_vs._USA_2013-11-19_(073)

Tim Howard in the rain, 2013. Photo: Steindy, via Wikimedia Commons.

Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it. For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions. (Third was not even worth acknowledging.) While other countries celebrated their silver or bronze medals with parties and parades, American commentators thrust microphones into the faces of the “losers” and asked, sotto voce and with unconcealed disappointment, “What happened?” or “What went wrong?”

But this time around, American irreality, with its dangerous admixture of heady confidence—recall that Times poll, which revealed that a majority of fans in only three countries believed their nation would win the World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, and … the USA?—and its obliviousness of “failures,” has not translated into terminal disenchantment with the U.S. team. Okay, they lost to Belgium, the smallest country (in terms of land mass) in the competition, but the goalkeeper, Tim Howard, put on one of the greatest displays in the history of international football. The team fought until the very end, scored a fine goal, and almost forced the game to penalties. Americans may have thought—absurdly? endearingly?—that their team was going to win the whole shebang, but when it didn’t, they were content to take their place among the multitude of also-rans.

This is extraordinarily good news, psychologically, philosophically, and maybe even in terms of foreign policy. In a way, it made the front page of most papers this morning. Few journalists reporting on the game, or on President Obama’s supportive tweets, failed to observe the good-spirited way in which the team’s fans, both locally and abroad, took the loss. If the U.S. can come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have to be No. 1 in everything, who knows how far this new humility will take it?

Of course, the loss was made easier to swallow by Howard, who broke the record for saves in a single World Cup match—and they were quality saves, to boot. Howard was by turns brave, acrobatic, positionally astute, commanding, and almost invincible. In Howard, Americans discovered a true hero … and he was a loser.

So now that Belgium, in the powerful form of Romelu Lukaku, has turned out the light, is another big switch soon to be flipped? Last night ESPN culled the highest overnight TV rating ever for a World Cup game. There were 25,000 at Soldier Field in Chicago, outdoor screens and crowds all across the country, riveted attention in offices, packed bars. Is the nation so fickle that France vs. Germany and Brazil vs. Colombia will now hold no interest?

All the signs point in the other direction—and FIFA is already mooting the possibility of the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 2026, smack in the middle of Chelsea Clinton’s second term.

Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.

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10 Comments

  1. Guy | July 2, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Maybe not winning at a communist sport isn’t the worst of things.

  2. yaya mo | July 2, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    like in every terroir unknown…the US enters slowly, carefully, diplomatically…wait until it is an expert in the game, and has armies full of soccer champs…than it will not be so humble.

  3. yaya mo | July 2, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    like in every terroir unknown…the US enters slowly, carefully, diplomatically…wait until it is an expert in the game, and has armies full of soccer champs…then it will not be so humble.

  4. CucamongaKing | July 2, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Amazing johnathan how you write an article about the American team and simultaneously bash Americans.

    We’re so uncool here you decided to abandon your country and live here.

    I have no idea what circles you run in but your description of Americans is no where near anyone I know. We’re watching all the games.

    As far as world domination, you should check your passport and you’ll find a country that blindly follows us no matter what we do.

  5. ivory | July 3, 2014 at 12:10 am

    I guess this is the writer’s second response to Ann Coulter’s American Exceptionalism /defamation of soccer?

  6. John Miller | July 3, 2014 at 8:31 am

    At the risk of infuriating my comPatriots who have left their comments above, I think Wilson is making an important point that deserves serious consideration. There is no doubt that the US obsession for being “Number One” breeds resentment around the globe and serves only marginally and fleetingly to unify and to motivate.

  7. Renee | July 3, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    I sense my opinion won’t be taken well, but here I go:

    While I agree that Americans took the loss surprisingly well, I do think it would be quite different were it not for Tim Howard. His effort is certainly noteworthy, I won’t deny that, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s become a hero for another reason entirely.

    It’s no secret Americans love icon figures and Howard is the latest trophy athlete for the nation to hold on its collective shoulders for the rest of the world to admire. Nothing wrong with that in a general sense, but it’s a nod to a constant need to be on top.

    As the daughter of a sports journalist/devoted soccer aficionado, I grew up on the pitch, both in Honduras and USA. I love both teams but the fans are different for each.

    As a Honduran, I certainly know what it’s like to root for the underdog and, more often than not, watch our team stumble before ever tasting a World Cup victory, but we praise them, win or lose.

    As an immigrant living in America, I always hope for the best with the USA team, but I also know that most “fans” watching the game this week probably couldn’t identify previous players like Donovan, Bocanegra or even Coach Bradley in a lineup. The majority of fans this time around showed up once USA was starting to do really well, not from the beginning and that’s my issue.

    For many Americans, Tim Howard’s saves have manifested into a topic worth gloating about in the form of memes, listicles and, evidently, Wikipedia edits rather than something worth respecting on a technical aspect.

    I just wish people cared this much about the team even during a friendly.

  8. reddeviljp | July 3, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Indeed, Jonathan. Well said. Come and join us English in cheering our early exit rom the World Cup. Our inability to play the game we invented with any panache or flair has led many of us to conclude that possibly our empire wasn’t as shit hot as we pretended it to be as well.

    Now we aspire to being as controlled and entertaining as the US team on a football field. Who would have thought that, fifty years ago?

  9. YL | July 3, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Jonathan –
    Much enjoyed.
    As you know we can surely export some of this also-ran morality from our dusty little place in the middle east. Our high expectations are always a thin fleeting screen over the well known reality, which rotates in with as the clock ticks.
    Chelsea… definitely not an ‘also ran’.

    Your ex-ex-neighbor.

  10. MICHAEL SCHWINN | July 9, 2014 at 10:23 am

    GERMANY WON FAIR AND SQUARE , TOO BAD BRAZIL, BETTER LIUCK NEXT TIME !!!

10 Pingbacks

  1. […] Hooray for Losers “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it. For the longest time, second place in any competition, domestic or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions. (Third was not even worth acknowledging.) While other countries celebrated their silver or bronze medals with parties and parades, American commentators thrust microphones into the faces of the ‘losers’ and asked, sotto voce and with unconcealed disappointment, ‘What happened?’ or ‘What went wrong?’” The Paris Review – Jonathan Wilson […]

  2. […] are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do it.” – a nice message on The Paris Review for the 4th of […]

  3. […] or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. But now, “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do […]

  4. […] or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. But now, “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do […]

  5. […] or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. But now, “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do […]

  6. […] or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. But now, “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do […]

  7. […] or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. But now, “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do […]

  8. […] or international, has been regarded in the USA as a disaster of unmitigated proportions,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in the Paris Review. But now, “Americans are learning how to lose, and soccer is teaching them how to do […]

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