Be Afraid


World Cup 2014

The political fear of soccer; how to shame a pathological diver.

As Americans continue to watch the World Cup in their accumulating millions, the denizens of the political right are running scared. Ann Coulter, whose bark is worse than Suárez’s bite—and whose delusions match José Mujica’s, the President of Uruguay, who referred to FIFA’s punishment of his country’s star as a “fascist ban”—weighed in a few days ago with a column listing the myriad ways in which soccer is un-American. It would be hard to find someone who knows less about soccer than Ann Coulter, but as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would say, that’s nit-picking, isn’t it? So: soccer doesn’t reward “individual achievement.” It’s “foreign,” meaning French people, liberals, and fans of HBO’s Girls like it. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s wussy: the “prospect of personal humiliation or major injury” essential to receiving the Coulter seal of approval as a real sport, like hockey or American football, is apparently missing in soccer.

Peter Beinart, writing in the Atlantic, has an interesting take on Coulter’s silliness: She’s right to be scared of the World Cup. Why? Because its burgeoning devotees look a lot like the people who elected Obama—first generation immigrants and their children, Hispanics, young people, and, yeah, liberals, who like soccer because they get to play with rest of the world instead of apart from it. Ann the Fan prefers it when Americans aren’t contaminated this way; better just to have a little local competition and call it the World Series.

Fans of Team USA have bought more tickets than any group outside the host country to this year’s tournament. And there they are in the stands, whooping it up, win or lose—reveling, it seems, in being part of a truly international party. Will the enthusiasm last? The test will come, possibly as early as tomorrow, if the U.S. loses. Will the nation switch off? I don’t think so.

Arjen Robben, Holland’s left-footed winger, is a brilliant player, one of the world’s best, and he is also a self-acknowledged cheat. He likes to draw fouls and fool refs by taking dives. It’s hard to discern when he’s faking, because he also happens to get fouled a lot; he’s fast and elusive and players from the other teams are not shy about kicking him up in the air. In yesterday’s game against Mexico, he went to ground three times. On the last occasion, in the final minute of the game, he won a penalty, Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored from the spot, and Holland had its victory. Afterward, Robben had no problem admitting to an inconsequential earlier dive, but he wouldn’t fess up to any late shenanigans. Clearly Mexico’s captain Rafael Márquez made contact, but Robben’s subsequent leap was spectacular theater—cirque de (Francois) Hollande.

When he played for Tottenham Hotspur in the midnineties, Jurgen Klinsmann, the present coach of the U.S. team, was an infamous diver. At away games, fans would hold up handwritten numerical signs to score his Olympian efforts: 5.6, 4.9, 6.0. Perhaps that’s how we need to shame Robben. Costa Ricans, get your numbers ready for Saturday.

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.