I really enjoy reading Laurent Dubois’s posts about soccer and national identity. Especially when he writes about Europe and how different countries have dealt—or not dealt—with immigration, colonialism, and integrating non-european players into european national teams. Two standout posts which are worth reading are his post last year on Mario Balotelli and the New Europe and his more recent post on the French National Team and La Marseillaise.*
*This last post also reminded me of the Spanish National team and the pre-2008 desire in Spain to add words to the Marcha Real in order to instill a sense of national pride which would help the soccer team. Spain is also a super-interesting case of the national-identity issue due to the fact that it has traditionally hampered by infighting between castillians, catalans, and basques. Not a non-european issue, but definitely a national-identity one.
What I like best about his posts though is how they make me think about how soccer in the US is so distinctly different and almost in the opposite situation.
In the US, soccer is still thought of as being a non-american sport. It’s not played by Americans, it’s played by immigrants. Or if it’s played by Americans, it’s as a sport of second choice when baseball/basketball/football is not in season.
More importantly, it’s not a sport which is watched by Americans—to the point where being a soccer fan in this country often still involves picking your ethnic national team over the US National team.*
*A phenomenon which is especially notable in the Mexican-American community.
That the US national team has a history of “non-native” players from military families only adds to this. We don’t have any expectations of them conforming to some sort of US identity as long as they play for us. As with our choices to be fans, we’re happy with players who either choose soccer over a “major” sport, or choose the US over another country.*
*Our anger when a player like Giuseppe Rossi chooses to play for another country shows how much we expect players to believe in the cause.
The result of all this is that fans of the national team are in no position to use it as a proxy for pushing a concept of americanness. The very existence of the team still seems unamerican.
Being an american soccer fan marks you as being part of a global community in a way that no other american sports do. In the Olympics, we expect to be the best—and certainly only focus on those sports. With soccer? We’re still also-rans. Rooting for a losing cause is not what we’re used to with our national teams either. The whole experience is foreign.
Not enough here for an additional post but the strangeness of being a soccer fan in America also extends to the club game. It’s necessary to accept that MLS is a minor league in a worldwide game. Since the US is a country which is used to having the best of the best, accepting this minor league status results in an interesting phenomenon of increased disconnect and name calling between fans of MLS and the eurosnobs. Both sides have legitimate points. There is definitely something to supporting your local team. At the same time, people should be encouraged to seek out and enjoy the sport at its highest levels.
Full disclosure, I’m a eurosnob and proud of it. MLS killed my interest in the league by moving my local team right when I had really gotten into it. While MLS was not good in its first decade, by 2005 it had turned into a decent product. I was watching Earthquakes games and was a bit of a Landon Donovan fan around then. The way he ended up moving to LA and the way the Earthquakes moved to Houston pushed me into the MLS wilderness. The ensuing Beckham debacle where all MLS news became exclusively “Beckham only” sealed the deal.