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I’ve watched far more soccer this summer than ever before, and have been fascinated, as a sports fan, by the game, for its elegance, its awkwardness, its futility and beauty and drama. As a cultural observer, I have marveled at the torrent of commentary generated by this global spectacle, and especially—here comes the American studies—commentary about the place of soccer in the United States, and the United States in soccer. Here’s my small contribution to the conversation.

I’ll start with the simple observation that soccer is a perfectly good term for this global sport. I have noticed a trend among sophisticates to call the game football, as nearly all the rest of the world does. I find this silly. There is nothing wrong with a mild case of American linguistic exceptionalism in this matter. After all, language is one of the most parochial of human activities, as even a global tongue like English enjoys endless local variations. And who wants a bland, globalized, and homogenized language anyway? Not me. In this instance, our local terminology is actually more cosmopolitan than one might imagine, since, as Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker points out this week, the word “soccer” is in fact a mid-nineteenth century nickname for the game, coined with upper-class cheekiness at Cambridge and Oxford. In England. This irony has apparently escaped the cultured Anglophiles in the US who call soccer “football” and, even worse, call football “American football.” I see no need to be ashamed of our language—it’s as good as any other, and it’s ours.

Watching the World Cup, then, has led me to a renewed appreciation for American linguistic nationalism, and my second soccer-inspired observation regards the many virtues of nationalism more generally. The event, even more than the Olympics, rests fundamentally on its invocation of primal nationalistic passions (our TV-generated Olympics narratives focus so much more on individuals than on nations, expect in the superfluous medal counts). And I have come to see this quadrennial exercise in national pride as worthwhile in the main. Certainly nationalism has its vicious sides, in xenophobia and violence; we know that story well. But the nationalism of the World Cup inspires a pride in community rather than in race or tribe. Most of the powerful teams are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, and yet fans powerfully identity with their team and its players all the same.

We in the US have long suffered from a dearth of national pride, as fractured as we have been by race and region, and real good can come from identification with the nation. For all the darkness of twentieth-century European nationalism, it allowed for the development of robust social democracies because of the sense of the nation as a real “we.” We need various forms of “we”—from family to neighborhood to city, state, and nation—in order to develop the bonds that inspire self-sacrifice and mutual care. The racism that inflects many forms of anti-government rhetoric in the US is rooted in a version of “we” that regards fellow citizens as “them” and recoils from contributing to “their” stake in the common welfare. If soccer can help us see ourselves as Americans (or Germans or Ghanaians or Brazilians), and therefore as part of an extended family, that seems healthy to me. So I say let’s have more flag waving, by Americans liberal and conservative, black and white, Northern and Southern, religious and secular. War, of course, serves the same purpose, and many of the great social reforms in history have come after the trauma of war, such as the building of the European welfare states after World War II. I prefer soccer to war.

Finally, we hear every four years that Americans don’t really love soccer the way the rest of the world does, and I have come to regard this as both false and pernicious. Some, like Glenn Beck, respond to this with jingoistic pride (“I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much”) while others react with a world-weary resignation, as if our purported lack of interest in the world’s game were akin to our shamefully high rates of incarceration or infant mortality. Depending on one’s temperament and politics, it seems, our moderation in all things soccer becomes a chance to proclaim either a mean-spirited superiority or a sniveling inferiority.  In this back-and-forth we hear echoes of the debate on immigration, since immigrant communities in the United States, especially those from Africa and Latin America, bring with them a natal passion for the game, and this passion symbolizes wider cultural changes that frighten reactionaries like Beck.

Yet the strange truth is that our current national non-passion for soccer is precisely what makes us un-exceptional. Sure, vast numbers of non-immigrant Americans like the game—millions and millions play soccer, and the World Cup this year received very solid TV ratings. If my Facebook is any indication, lots of us are paying attention. We just don’t suffer the way Europeans and Latin Americans do. Instead, we care with roughly the same harmlessness as do fans in India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan and the rest of the majority of humanity.  When it comes to soccer, apparently, we are stuck in the cultural sensibilities of the nineteenth century, measuring ourselves against our betters in Europe and our neighbors in the New World. We need to stand up and realize this is the twenty-first century, the century of India and China, where Americans can continue enjoying the game of soccer, as I and millions of others have this summer, with a guilt-free indifference. Our moderation may not make sense to Italians or Brits or Argentines, but their ferocity is the exception, and our pleasant amusement the rule.

After all this, Spain won. I would have preferred the Dutch, but no matter. It was fun, even for nearly two goalless hours. Now back to baseball!

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Nearly 100 years ago, baseball impresario Albert G. Spalding published his sprawling, 500-plus-page book, America’s National Game.  This 1911 tome, replete with illustrations by political cartoonist Homer Davenport, is one part history, one part autobiographical recollection, and many parts unabashed celebration of Spalding’s own contributions to the development of the game.  Spalding (1850-1915) was a former pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings who subsequently became the team’s president as well as a magnate of the sporting goods industry.  His book traces the long history of baseball, starting with early games of ball played in ancient Greece and Rome, through the invention of baseball’s modern rules by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY in 1839, through the creation of the National league in the 1870s.  Throughout America’s National Game, Spalding stresses the factors that make baseball a distinctively American sport.  To wit:

“I claim that Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.  Base Ball is the American Game par excellence because its playing demands Brain and Brawn, and American manhood supplies these ingredients in quantity sufficient to spread over the entire continent.”

Spalding’s love of adjectives and alliteration aside, another overt agenda of America’s National Game is to promote the idea that baseball can facilitate the spread of U.S. empire and cultural influence.  Early on in the book, Spalding declares, “baseball follows the flag.”  As evidence of its Americanizing—and allegedly civilizing—potential, Spalding proudly cites the establishment of the sport on recently acquired American colonies such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines.  “Wherever a ship flying the Stars and Stripes finds anchorage today,” writes Spalding, conveniently erasing the violence of imperialism, “somewhere on nearby shore the American National Game is in progress.”  Spalding himself organized a baseball world tour in 1888-89, sending two teams to Europe, Egypt, and Australia in the hopes of spreading not just the game but American ideals as well.  Apparently, American cultural insensitivity was also on display, as Spalding recounts how in Egypt, U.S. ball players used one of the Great Pyramids for a backstop and photographed themselves atop the Sphinx, much to the chagrin of locals.

Spalding’s unapologetically imperialist book reminds us of the long and sometimes forgotten history of baseball’s relationship to war and globalization.  Another chapter in this long history is currently being written in Iraq.  Spalding’s century-old claims about baseball’s universal appeal are being newly tested, albeit haltingly, by the upstart Iraqi national baseball team.  The team was founded by several young Iraqi Americans who had played in the United States and drummed up curiosity about the sport during their 2005 visit to Baghdad.  Since then, the sport has taken an initial but tenuous hold in Iraq.  In fact, a year ago, the team had only one softball bat, one baseball cap, three balls, no official rulebook, and nine used gloves.  They had no cleats so they wore running shoes.  They received threats from Sunni insurgents who accused them of playing “an occupation game.”  Fortunes changed for the team following the publication of a McClatchy news article about their struggles—a story subsequently picked up by the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC—when U.S. corporate donors offered to ship the much-needed equipment.  Since then, the co-ed team has raised its profile and started to play in international competitions.  In May of this year, the Iraqi ball club paid a ten-day visit to the United States courtesy of the U.S. State Department.  The brief tour included outings to Nationals Park in D.C. and a baseball camp sponsored by Cal Ripken, Jr.  According to a McClatchy report, U.S. State Department officials expressed hope that the trip would inspire the players to speak positively about both baseball and the United States when they returned to Iraq.

Albert Spalding once compared baseball to war, arguing that the sport could transform foreign cultures just as effectively as an invading military force.  Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, baseball may not be transforming Iraqi culture—and whether it even should is certainly subject to debate—but nonetheless, the game seems to have gotten to first base.

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