There is nationalism, Arthur Koestler said, and then there is football nationalism, the latter being much more deeply felt.
But soccer nationalism—soccer nationalism is another thing entirely. For a Brit like Will Frears, English football encodes plenty of thinking-man’s-ambivalence about the country itself—its haughty self-regard, its classishness, its sporadic hooliganism. In America, delightfully, conveniently, soccer decodes ambivalence. On the field, the United States is not a superpower but a scrappy younger sibling, not racially strifed but Benetton-harmonious, not stratified by class but unified blandly by a rec-league middle-classness. Soccer isn’t war, it’s much more self-denying than that, something closer to noble pacifism. Americans have tribal instincts, too, though we check them, and soccer nationalism might be our only form of bloodless imperialism—a chance to root for our country when it doesn’t actually mean anything. Soccer loyalty, unlike national loyalty, is lightly-felt and light on its feet; it is a weak nuclear force; it is winning.
Not literally winning, of course. Over the last generation American soccer has climbed out of the realm of the putrid but pitiful and ascended to discourteous mediocrity. This makes us, somehow, only less loveable to the rest of the world. But being an underdog is perhaps the most cherished position in American sports. Here, we actually like surprises, unlike Europeans—whose leagues feature no playoffs, no salary caps, and punish lackluster teams by actually demoting them, like bad students—and all the more so when we’ve been along for the ride. Here, we might even prefer surprises to excellence. And being mediocre means we’re only a lucky break from attaining decency.
Of course, if we do attain decency this time around—a positive result against England this Saturday, or even a rugged loss, and a win in the knockout rounds—we’ll be cheering ourselves hoarse, but more or less alone. We don’t get sympathy votes these days, as we might have in 1994, when the ragtag Yanks hosting the tournament advanced for the first time out of the group stage and went down, somewhat valiantly, to Brazil, the ultimate champion. One could imagine around the globe a few eyebrows raised—if not many glasses—in begrudging praise. One has a hard time imagining a single one of the several billion following this tournament rooting for the Americans in any contest against a nation that has not perpetrated war crimes against immediate family. And our homegrown fanatics may be even worse—the Europhile bunch who insist that the true mark of a fan is not how obsessively he follows the pubescent midfielders of the under-14 youth national team, but how obsequiously he praises Lionel Messi (whose Argentina the US tied in 2008), Cristiano Ronaldo (whose Portugal we beat in the 2002 World Cup) or David Villa (whose top-ranked Spain we beat in last summer’s Confederations Cup).
What those fuckers miss is that the point of sport isn’t artistry—it’s victory! Though I’ve got friends and family who swear by Tottenham, I don’t support any club team, European or American, and don’t bother to follow any of the premier leagues, unless they happen to feature a Yank abroad. Then, I watch like the boyfriend of a dancer in a large ballet—focusing intently on my girl, single-mindedly, and nobly fighting off the desire that some of the other dancers might be American, too.