DUBAI, United Arab Emirates— At JFK, waiting to board the Emirates flight to Dubai that the Times Square bomber guy was yanked from trying to flee the country, I sit next to a guy from San Diego wearing a blue USA jersey with the excellent Joe Gaetjens 1950 throwback sash. My unofficial lounge tally: more Mexico shirts (plus two sombreros) than American ones. Then there’s the dude with a rooster mohawk in an Argentina shirt with a “10” shaved above his left temple and—this is the beautiful part—a mirror image “01” above his right. Messi goes through your head.
On the plane, more Mexico, some Argentina, a couple of England, a dozen or so USA. Outside the bathroom during the 12-hour flight, I talk to Beto, a furniture salesman from just outside Philly who is spending $8,000 and a month off to follow La Albiceleste. He’s optimistically bought tickets through the quarterfinals. With Maradona nominally in charge, I’m not so sure. Neither is he. But the World Cup is everything to him and, despite 23 years in the States, so is Argentina. In the stands for a game against Nigeria in Japan in 2002 (Argentina’s only win), “I felt my soul expand,” Beto says.
All of which is to say... not much, really, other than that USMNT fans of a certain age enter international tournaments feeling a bit inadequate emotionally and also a bit insecure. In 1998, in Paris, writing a piece about the fledgling Sam’s Army for my old employer, the Wall Street Journal, I stood in the high stands at the Parc des Princes with a clutch of flag-clad Americans. Claudio Reyna took a Teutonic shot to the ribs in the fifth minute and the future was not in doubt. The Germans pointed at us and chanted, “You’re shit and you know it!” And we did. I can still hear them, and some small part of me still believes it.
I wrote an essay for The Independent this week about the conflicted life of the American soccer fan. The editor (who initially contacted me about Scrabble, a sport in which the U.S. was formerly indomitable but is now just another top player; sort of like basketball) was so surprised to learn I cared about soccer that she commissioned a piece. My shtick has always been, essentially, that the rest of the world can suck it. As my go-to quote on the subject, Michigan professor Andrei Markovits, explains in his book Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, reflexive anti-Americanism in world soccer reflects the political and economic issues of other cultures, not ours. To sum up, when you resent American cultural imperialism, it feels good to have something (football) to lord over the U.S. in. And the thought of the U.S. taking over soccer, too, makes you resent America even more.
I know: Feelings are changing in Europe, a topic I hope to explore while in South Africa. Donovan, Dempsey, Howard, DeMerit et al have loyal followings in England. The boys playing in Germany get some love, too. Hey, we beat Spain! And we almost beat Brazil! I still think we’re 20 or 30 years away from having a legitimate right to be included in the football-elite conversation, and I hope we win one of these things before I die. But I’m not sure I’ll ever shake the feeling that we don’t belong, that our short, niche history in the sport—which explains everything, from the past and current quality of our players to the interest of our public—doesn’t give us the right to hoist Jules Rimet’s ugly trophy.
Having lived through nothing but World Cup finals, I’m not sure the face-painting, Betsy Ross-bandana-wearing fans feel the same way; in Dubai, in transit to Johannesburg, my 16-year-old nephew, Mike, pulls out a U.S. flag and some women wearing Brazil, Mexico and Argentina shirts begin chanting “U.S.A.!” And heaven knows you don’t have to play pretty football anymore to win. But I’m stuck between wanting to give the world the middle finger and thank it for inviting us to the party. We’re not shit, but I’m not sure I know it.