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WORLD CUP

Soccer remains foreign concept to most Americans

With the possible exception of the players on the Australian team, none will be more obscure and irrelevant to the public in their home country among the 32 squads contesting the World Cup in Germany than those constituting Team USA. And this is for a very good reason: In Australia, just like in the United States, soccer -- the abbreviated, British slang word for association football -- has never constituted what I have called ``hegemonic sports culture" -- meaning a world of watching, following, worrying, debating, living a sport rather than merely playing it. To be sure, the ``following" and the ``doing" are related, but only to an extent.

This is not the case with those rare hegemonic sports that make up a country's sports culture. One need never have kicked a soccer ball or played on any team to follow the Squadra Azzurra if one is Italian, or FC Barcelona if one is Catalan, or the Selecao if one is Brazilian. A New Englander need not know much about baseball to be consumed by the Red Sox. The same pertains to football, basketball, and hockey. New Englanders follow the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Bruins regardless as to when, where, how, if, and whether they ever participated in these sports.

In all countries in Europe and most of Latin America, soccer -- or what much of the world calls football -- emerged as virtually the sole occupant of these countries' sports cultures.

This was not the case in the United States, and many countries under former British political rule. In the latter, the two games played by members of the British ruling military and bureaucracy in the late 19th century -- cricket and rugby -- furnished their hegemonic sports cultures and do so to this day. Just think of India, Pakistan, the West Indies in the Caribbean, indeed all of the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. None of these became soccer countries then and they still are not to this day. Soccer surely is the globe's most widely played and also most widely followed game and sport. But it does not mean that it has succeeded in covering the entire globe in an equal manner. It has remained from the beginning of the 20th century predominantly the prerogative of Europe and Latin America, with the rest of the world always playing the game but never following and experiencing it as culture.

While Britain developed its generic football starting in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s mainly at its elite secondary schools, America, too, was busy creating its own sports culture. Beginning in the 1840s and fully developed by the late 1850s, baseball had become a totally modern sport with teams, written rules, and uniforms that was played all over the United States. Baseball became even more entrenched in America's sports culture by beating out cricket as its major competitor.

But baseball was not to be America's only team sport that would comprise its hegemonic sports culture by the late 1800s. Enter an American version of football, which emanated from rugby and was created at Harvard between 1870 and 1874 and then perfected at Yale in the course of the 1880s. This game became so predominant already by the early 1880s -- particularly at America's all-important colleges -- that it appropriated the terminology and signifier ``football" for itself. This marginalization in the nomenclature already bespeaks soccer's peripheral position in America's sports space at whose core rules this other football, appropriately called American football since it is not played anywhere else in the world in that fashion.

Football and baseball complemented each other superbly at this all-important founding era when the seeds for most contemporary sports cultures in most industrial societies were actually planted. Whereas baseball flourished in America's working-class culture and was played during the summer, American football became the cultural domain of its growing middle class and was played during the fall on college campuses. Enter basketball, the only modern team sport that had absolutely no predecessors in ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy, the Inca empires, or rural Britain but was literally created de novo by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield in 1891.

Certainly by the onset of World War I, this game emerged as the third team sport in America's sports space, occupying the winter season because it was played indoors. Thus, precisely during the time when soccer experienced its phenomenally successful export from England to the rest of the world, where it became entrenched as hegemonic sport culture par excellence, America filled its very own sports space with three games (plus the Canadian import of ice hockey in key northern states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin), thus ``crowding out" soccer's chances of becoming part of America's sports culture.

Soccer feminized in US
This is not to say that soccer did not exist in America from the get-go. Indeed, the first official college ``football" game played in the United States occurred Nov. 6, 1869, when Rutgers and Princeton played a game that resembled the association version much more than it did the rugby variant. Thus, this game was much closer to contemporary soccer than it was to American football. But then Harvard intervened and soccer disappeared from the all-important world of American colleges. Still, soccer continued to exist in America. Thus, the oldest soccer federation in the world -- outside the four of the British Isles -- was the American Football Association of 1884. The first professional soccer league following the English Football League was the American League of Professional Football Clubs, formed in 1894.

Thousands of soccer leagues have existed in America throughout the 20th century, and there are more today than ever. Indeed, America has 18 million soccer players. But playing and following are two different things. Millions of people bowl, fish, jog, bicycle, or play billiards, yet this does not mean they follow the sport.

Nowhere have reforms in gender relations over the past 40 years been taken as seriously as by American higher education in which legislation has decreed that women have to participate in sports to the same degree as men. Thus, soccer became a perfect venue for women to occupy a niche in large numbers which -- unlike in the rest of the world -- remained relatively unoccupied by men, who had concentrated all their energies on the hegemonic sports cultures of the Big Four.

Centered on the world of college soccer, the American women became the most successful female soccer players in the world: two-time Olympic gold medalists, two-time world champions, and many other impressive international victories. But beyond these immense successes on the field, soccer has become feminized in America to an extent totally unimaginable anywhere in the world, where it remains a proudly guarded and strutted male preserve and masculine domain.

Where else in the world of soccer are women players much better known nationally than their male counterparts? Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain are known to all Americans well beyond the world of women's soccer -- or any soccer, for that matter. Only America's small soccer niche knows names like Kasey Keller, Landon Donovan, or even Freddy Adu. And where else could a woman be the color commentator on television interpreting the nuances of soccer to an overwhelmingly male audience as it has happened in the United States?

We care every four years
As to the men's game in America, soccer has attained an ``Olympianization" -- meaning that since the World Cup was held in the United States in 1994 and with the American team qualifying for every World Cup tournament since 1990, this event is now followed like the Olympics. Does this mean that -- shy of the actual practitioners of these sports and their immediate circles -- millions of people follow these sports outside the Olympics the way Italians, Germans, and Brazilians follow their soccer clubs or Americans follow baseball, basketball and football? Of course not.

Like the Olympics, soccer has become a quadrennial event in the United States where the act of playing (the sport is performed by millions on a daily basis) is supplemented for four weeks by the act of following. American media will report on this World Cup extensively and expertly. The American team has received -- and will continue to receive -- respectable attention and the tournament's 64 games will be televised live. But the American public -- beyond the small community of real soccer fans -- will not be upset, hurt, or angry if and when its team loses. Nor will it be overjoyed and ecstatic should its team prove unexpectedly successful. The World Cup will play second fiddle to the NBA Finals. Most American sports fans will follow key baseball games much more avidly. Americans just do not have the history and experience of a national team that means anything remotely as much to them as the ``Squadra Azzurra" means to Italians or the ``Nationalmannschaft" means to the Germans.

Surely it hurt some American basketball fans that our team only garnered the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004. But this remained basically ephemeral to what really matters to American basketball fans: how their professional and college teams perform in their respective domestic championships. American sports identity does not know the term ``national team."

The absence of this integral discourse to the soccer world is precisely why I am such a massive supporter of our American team at the World Cup beyond my being a citizen of the United States. Because unlike our basketball or ice hockey players, who can return home to their superstar existence and take immediate and comforting refuge from their international debacle, our soccer players have the worst of both worlds -- disrespected and vilified by the international soccer world and virtually unknown at home. Such is the burden the historical development of American sport culture has placed on them.

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