31 nations and their supporters have descended upon Brazil, who is the host and 32nd team, for the 2014 FIFA(Federation Internationale de Football Association) World Cup. As the opening kick-off gets closer, debate will intensify about the outcomes of the world's greatest tournament. Who will be the winner, who will get through their group, who will be a dark horse, and who will crumble under the pressure?
Surprisingly, much like the Olympics, the World Cup piques the interest of many Americans to sample the quadrennial festivities and attempt to see what is so great about this foreign sport, known to the world as football. It is at this time that we see the old vestiges of The Red Scare and xenophobia creep back into the American consciousness, though most are not aware of why they have these feelings.
According to historians, there is evidence that American Soccer predates that of baseball and American Football. It was brought in through Ellis Island, and other ports, in the hearts and minds of immigrants from Great Britain and her colonies. Having such a long, storied history in the United States, why did American Soccer fall behind the rest of the world?
Up until 1950, American Soccer was progressing fairly similarly to that of the rest of the world. Like the rest of the industrialized world, the games progress was impeded by the events of 2 world wars and the economic downturn of the 1930's. After WWII, in 1945, Germany was in ruins, England was still cleaning up from The Battle of Britain and the United States was practically unscathed, at least physically.
Having escaped the war with little damage to the main land, The United States was able to get back to normalcy quite quickly. England and Germany, the two major players of the war, had insurmountable odds to deal with, in terms of returning to pre-war conditions.
Why did German and English football flourish while American soccer died out? It certainly did not die a quick death due to finances or war. Why did American Soccer improve for decades, culminating with a famous defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup, only to fall off the face of the Earth?
The reason that American Soccer fell behind is a direct result of World War II, but from a psychological standpoint, not a physical or financial one. With the end of the war, relations between former Allies, the United States and The Soviet Union, fell apart, thanks in part to competing nuclear programs and Communism. For four short years, The United States held a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and then at the end of 1949, that military edge came to an end. The Soviets had the bomb, and that scared the hell out of Americans and their ideals.
In a state of paranoia, Americans, spurred on by Senator Joseph McCarthy, had a constant fear that The United States was infiltrated and would be conquered by Communism. The Red Scare took hold of the US in every facet of life, including Soccer. Powerful people, whether in Hollywood or in government, could be broken just by uttering that they may be a communist or a sympathizer.
With many refugees from the war still seeking safety in the US, immigrants were once again looked at with a suspicious eye. The thicker your accent, the more ethnic your clothing or by playing a "Communist" sport like soccer, the greater the chance you would incur undue attention into your life. Americans became convinced that foreigners were spies and that their neighbors, could easily defect. Being labeled a Communist was the worst thing that could happen to anyone during the Red Scare.
Though plenty of immigrants from Italy, the British Isles or from Europe had the love of the game in their hearts, they were pressured to assimilate, almost to an extreme extent. Part of baseball's popularity and growth was due to immigrants latching onto the American pastime, known as Baseball and ditching Soccer for fear of reprisal. They knew the old adage; they wanted to be "as American as Baseball and Apple Pie"!
Because of McCarthyism and xenophobia, The United States lost an entire generation of Soccer players and enthusiasts. As stated previously, The US went from defeating the inventors of the "Beautiful Game", England, in the 1950 World Cup, to missing the next 9 World Cups, representing 40 years that the most powerful, most industrialized nation on Earth was unable to field a competitive team.
Can you imagine if football or basketball lost an entire generation of athletes? How long would it take for talent and expertise to rise to the levels which are enjoyed today? It takes decades for a program to develop into a winner, imagine having to develop an entire league or national team?
With such a large, diverse and healthy population in which to cultivate talent, there is no other explanation for why American Soccer fell behind. It is because of propaganda and xenophobia, that soccer was shunned, in large part by journalists, while other, less popular Olympic sports continued to see progress.
Repairing Soccer's Image
While College soccer continued to be a competitive sport, it was often over looked by young athletes, hungry to become professional athletes. American children were keenly aware that along with being a "foreign and communist sport", soccer in America didn't have a professional league. After college, what could you do with soccer?
While the 50's were marked by strong conservative values, the 60's saw the rise of the counter culture. While those of the Civil Rights movement and hippies weren't exactly playing soccer, they did open up the dialogue about inclusion. Not only did the left embrace new peoples and ideas, but also ideologies and their games.
Through the medium of radio and newspaper stories, Americans became aware of England winning the World Cup in 1966. It helped that a fellow, English speaking nation won. This in some ways allowed soccer to become more accepted. The Cold War and Communism were still thriving, but the old stigma of soccer being a communist sport was in many ways embraced by the free love culture of hippies. With the amazing play of a charismatic man named Pele, soccer became a bit of a niche sport, with a huge youth movement.
Though still not fielding a national team able to compete at the national level, the United States once again had a professional league of sorts in 1968, known as the NASL(North American Soccer League). It went from small time to the big time when Pele, the greatest player in the world, decided, much to the surprise of global fans, to come to New York and play for the Cosmos.
The NASL, for several years, recruited popular and proven players from around the world to finish out their careers. It became a bit of a retirement league. With that said, very few young Americans were afforded the chance to play professionally in America. This did nothing to bolster the floundering national team, and World Cup qualification continued to allude the Americans.
Once the Peles of the world wore out their novelty, professional soccer in the form of NASL, began to die out, officially folding in 1985. Despite the ultimate failure of the NASL, it did provide the youth of America a glimpse of how fun and challenging the sport could be. It gained acceptance in America and has since then, has been the most played youth sport.
Despite these various periods of success, traditional journalists, many of which grew up in the 50's or had parents who grew during that era, still hold old convictions about Americans not accepting soccer. Some of these old, xenophobic journalists seem to have made it their mission to bash soccer and hope that it goes away. The biggest obstacle to US Soccer is the US media; sports writers who have some fear that American acceptance of the global game will destroy American sports like baseball and football.
Why is Soccer Bashing Tolerated?
Think of comedians, journalists or just the common person on the street. How often have you heard such a dislike and vitriol be stated for something as arbitrary as a sport? If it is that insignificant, as some of the detractors claim, why do they spend so much time bashing it? Why in an era of political correctness and acceptance, is it still ok for people to bash soccer as a sissy sport?
These are just a few examples of the xenophobia and homophobia that is a major part of "Soccer Bashing". Jefferson Glapski has a website, which I won't name(I don't want to spread the hate) that states the following on it's front page. "Soccer, for the most part is a disgusting exercise...[We] are proud to shed light on the terrible influence soccer has on the world. It appeals to violent hooligans and terrorists. It appeals to perverts. It appeals to fascists and Nazis. It appeals to self-important and self-hating freaks."
Nationally syndicated journalist, Jim Rome, has been the host of a show on VERY credible sports networks; ESPN, CBS, Showtime and Fox Sports Net, as well as being heard all of the country on his radio show. This is one of his more homophobic quotes in regards to Soccer, as reported by the English paper, The Guardian in an article posted by Steven Wells, titled The Truth the Soccerphobes Refuse to Face.; "My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball".
Many individuals out there, have no problem saying they don't like baseball. The common response; "it's too boring" or "too slow", and they leave it at that. They don't go on to bash the sport, or the people that are fans of it. For some journalists, the way they incessantly and arbitrarily attack soccer show they feel threatened by it, just as Americans felt threatened by Communism, all those years ago.
Examples such as these, are proof that there is an illogical and inexplicable hatred for this sport. There is no other explanation than the Cold War dehumanization of Communists and Soviets. The thought seems to be that the enemy played this game, so we must hate the game they played.
Playing Catch Up with the World
Thanks to 1994 FIFA World Cup being held in the United States, the youth of the 70's and 80's growing up playing the sport and the creation of Major League Soccer in 1996, US Soccer has finally made some major strides towards competing at the global level. US Soccer, ironically, is now getting more respect from the world than from it's own countrymen at times.
In The 2002 World Cup, the US showed the world that they were an emerging soccer power. They escaped group play and made it to the knockout stage of the tournament, where they faced and defeated rivals Mexico. From there, they made their first quarterfinals in World Cup history, and by most estimates, should have beaten Germany to make the Semi-Finals. They came so close to making it to the final four. The US growth in the span of a decade was remarkable, thanks in part to the growing success of the national league. The growth has been slow, but solid.
Based on the numbers, Americans, despite what they are being told by the "critics" are buying into soccer, and more importantly into MLS(Major League Soccer). Despite never being referred to in the "Big 4" discussions(NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL), MLS is now the third most attended sports league in America, behind the National Football League and Major League Baseball. By attendance, Soccer has higher attendance than professional hockey and basketball, but all you will hear from the so called "critics" is that Americans just don't care about Soccer.
Even more importantly than numbers is the fact that soccer is now showing a profit. Gone are the days of rich investors and owners having to prop up the sport until it takes off; Soccer is starting to support itself, which will benefit the national game. But that is not the story you will hear from those in the national media.
So as casual American fans enjoy the festivities of the World Cup, understand why you may see and sense such a guttural reaction to the sport. Look at their age or background and you may realize what I theorize to be true. The next time you hear a so called critic or reporter bash soccer, take a careful look at their age and race; you may be hearing the last remnants of the fallout of the Red Scare and the Cold War.
Once the anti-soccer, xenophobic sentiment is gone, either by death or overwhelming support, The United States will fully mature into a soccer world power. Bigger and more athletic kids will embrace the sport and empower US Soccer. Based on the progress made in the past twenty years, we can anticipate the United States hoisting the World Cup sometime in our lifetime; with or without the detractors.