Not everyone at TNR has an equal appreciation for the beautiful game. In fact, Frank Foer and Jonathan Chait have debated its proper role in American sports and culture around the office for over a decade. Here are excerpts from a passionate argument (and equally rousing response) published in the magazine eight years ago, while the World Cup was wrapping up in Korea and Japan.
But there's a simple solution to this perception problem: Let soccer be soccer. If Lipsyte and Barra actually watched professionals play it, they would see a game far more brutal than basketball, let alone baseball. Athleticism? Few American athletes—pampered by countless time-outs, breaks between innings, huddles, and foul shots—could survive soccer's 90 minutes of nonstop running. And a bicycle kick is every bit as physically intimidating as a tomahawk dunk. With a little work, even a mediocre marketing mind could save American soccer from its Volvo-driving friends and give it street cred with Joe Six Pack. Some American exceptionalists suggest anything that didn't come across the Atlantic from Europe with the turn-of-the-century migration will never catch on with blue-collar America. But if that were really true, the British monarchy wouldn't dominate American tabloids, nor would there have been a British pop invasion. And if multinational corporations like Nike and Budweiser are bringing basketball to Europe and baseball to Latin America and Asia, there's every reason to believe that with their corporate investment in soccer, they could brand the game for the American working class. It would be a delicious, perverse twist on the caricature of the global market—not the Americanization of the world, but the reverse. Let the honeymoon begin.
Also like the Communists, soccer's fellow travelers routinely smear their opponents as rabid right-wingers. In his pro-soccer screed in this space last week, Franklin Foer called soccer critics “Buchananite.” What the soccer elites don't grasp is that Americans, not unreasonably, associate soccer with weakness. In football, the kicker is the smallest, wimpiest player on the field—so presumptively unable to defend himself that there is a special penalty—“roughing the kicker”—to prohibit the other players from harming him. The kicker is like the nearsighted, asthmatic cousin your parents forced you to include in the game: Necessity compels his participation, but he is treated more gingerly than everybody else and is mildly scorned for it. When Americans see soccer, they see a game consisting entirely of kickers. Yes, soccer hatred has a certain socially retrograde element. (My high school football coach would not even deign to utter the word “soccer”—he called it “communist homosexual activity.”) But the simple truth is that no football-playing nation has ever lost a war to a soccer-playing nation. Perhaps this is why Foer and his soccer-loving comrades persist in trying to import their system to American shores. He gleefully predicts that soccer will bring about “not the Americanization of the rest of the world, but the reverse.” While his football- and freedom-loving countrymen see “Americanization” as the great hope for the world, Foer uses the word as an epithet. Call Franklin Foer, and tell him to stop his negative attacks on the United States of America.