Just a game?

On my Facebook profile, a conversation ensued following a couple of status updates I had posted rooting against the U.S. in the World Cup, specifically in reference to the fact that the U.S. (and England) were both imperial powers. The brevity and nature of Facebook don’t allow for elaboration so well, so I’ll offer here some more thoughts. Please feel free to join the dialog.

I’ll get right to the point and say this: The combination of cultural, historical, political, and theological issues at stake in an international sporting event make it impossible for me too root for the country I live in, as well as many other countries. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a match, but as I said on Facebook, there are always at least two things going on. On a specific level, you’ve got the game, the players, etc. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say these things are all harmless (more on this below), that is generally a level at which I can usually enjoy, no matter who is playing. But there’s almost always something else going on, and that is what I said above. It’s the history of colonialization, subjection, injustice, marginalization, capitalism that throws a wrench in the “it’s just a game” idea. The World Cup, like the Olympics, is as much a political/historical stage as it is a sport competition. I think most Americans have trouble understanding that when it comes to soccer. They have trouble realizing that for many countries, to even be on the field with a specific race, ethnicity, etc. has huge implications. For that reason, the sport can be unifying in incredible ways at times. But the opposite is true as well; players come to the field as embodiments of their culture and nation. The proud French, the emotional Italians, the dancing Brazilians; all come complete with the stereotypes of their countries. North Korea is the perfect example this year. The commentators have really seemed to be in near shock that they’re playing. Everyone makes reference to the propaganda of the government there, the supposedly bought-out fans from another country, the deception, etc. If there is a team that most people cognitively did NOT want to win the World Cup, it is probably North Korea. Why? Because, I venture to guess, they don’t want a corrupt, oppressive government that supposedly is threatening the world with nuclear holocaust to be given any spotlight. North Korea is bad, so it’s team ought to lose.

But perhaps I’m wrong, and nobody has thought that way. However, I’d guess that a lot of people have had a similar thought run through their brain.

This brings me to the U.S. In the same way many Americans look at North Korea in the World Cup, a lot of the world probably looks at the U.S. and thinks there’s nobody they’d rather see lose more. A country fighting two wars, known for its arrogance and self-appointed role as world police; all this is going on when a soccer game is being played.

For me, I see the tournament as a chance for the seemingly less important cultures of the world to get the spotlight. Western (meaning American, British, French, etc) culture is everywhere, and American culture is supremely dominant in the world. This is a chance for the people of a place like Ghana or South Africa to feel some sense of dignity and worth in the eyes of the world. I love the cultural David vs Goliath scenario where France gets beat by South Africa, or the U.S. gets humbled by Ghana (hopefully). It’s a reminder that Americans aren’t the best, that American culture doesn’t always get to be the spotlight.

Most people say to me that they root for the U.S. because they are from the U.S. and that’s how and who they identify with and couldn’t root against them if they wanted to. For me, the other things at stake add up to what’s akin to meeting an attractive woman who smokes 3 packs a day and beats children; when she’s willing to change, I’d think about dating her. Not to mention, I don’t identify myself as American, and I don’t identify with many aspects of American culture; why would that change when it comes to soccer?

I’d like to address a couple of things that came up in the Facebook dialog. Someone asked if other countries would find my kind of support degrading, rooting for them because they’re insignificant in the eyes of many dominant cultures. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think it’s similar to the way I long for the people of the U.S. to give special and loving attention to the people suffering in this country and abroad: it’s attempting to acknowledge a disparity and make a small, nearly symbolic, attempt to change it.

My good friend Andrew also brought up the point that in my logic (I’d made reference to pro sports as Rome’s gladiator fights), I ought to be opposed to all professional sports, not just the U.S. team or the World Cup. I actually think that’s pretty close to true. I certainly oppose the idea of sports as a paid occupation, if for no other reason than the absurdity of one person making 10 million dollars a year to throw a ball 66 feet. Sport as recreation, as community building, as local culture is all that needs to exist. Yet I love some sports and participate in the gladiator-esque aspect from time to time, though increasingly less as I get older.

One other commenter suggested grouping the teams in the World Cup so that all the dominant teams play each other in the first round so that the rest of the Cup includes teams from all over. It’s an interesting idea, but would never be as satisfying as seeing a game like the France-South Africa game. I want the teams to genuinely win so there can’t be any justifying.

Though I root for the underdogs and former colonies (other than the U.S. :)), in the end I do believe that wearing a national uniform in a sport is nearly the same as wearing a military uniform. It requires you to suspend disagreement with the government in order to serve “the country.” Don’t worry about what the government is doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. You’re doing the country proud, and that’s what matters. National pride is far more an opiate than religion ever has been. I have to be honest and say that if the U.S. hosts an international sporting event while still engaged in a war, I sincerely hope that countries boycott. The total irony of the U.S. boycotting the 1980 Olympics because Russia was fighting a war in Afghanistan blows my mind. Why doesn’t some country take a moral stand against these wars even now in the World Cup? Had a country refused to play North Korea, some would have called it a moral stand for freedom and democracy. Can you even imagine the political ramifications of boycotting the U.S.? Talk about political suicide, but yet, I’d say that a certain code of ethics requires it.

I’ve gone on long enough now, hopefully to spark some discussion. I’m especially interested in any thoughts or responses to the questions I posed about boycotting the U.S. What do people really think would be the result?

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4 comments

  1. Susan · June 25, 2010

    I enjoyed reading your post Brian. Regarding the issue of boycotting the US, I would be opposed to that, for the same reason that I disapprove of the US boycotting the 1980 Olympics. I think that sports (like the arts) is a common interest shared across most cultures and belief systms, and that it is an opportunity to bridge the gap. I am not an athletic person, but I love the arts, and have personally experienced the way that the arts can unify two very different groups of people, setting the stage for further growth and understanding. I think that things like sports and the arts can serve as incredible tools for international diplomacy, so boycotting those instruments of peace serve no purpose but to widen the gap.

  2. Andrew · June 25, 2010

    Great post Brian, do you want to know why countries don’t boycott? Money!!!!! That and making the world cup is a 2-3 process of playing upwards of 25 games just to make it to the World Cup Final (the name of the 32 team tournament in South Africa, because its the culmination of years of qualifying). If you boycott a world cup, especially a smaller country it would set you back for a long time because you are giving up a guaranteed $9 million just for qualifying. That money is reinvested into domestic leagues and training programs. I guess from my perspective I can respect not watching sports at all and thinking they are wrong, I even sometimes believe that, though my actions don’t express that. While I do not consider myself to be exactly a US citizen and have struggled a lot with that identity, I think I cannot entirely not be who I am, I was born in the US, raised here, don’t really plan on living here, but the US soccer team is the one little piece of the US I carry with me. Every country I have been too I have their country’s jersey and root for their team, but continue to root for the US and that is the one little part of my identity I carry with me. I think we as the dominant culture encourage others in the minority culture in the US to embrace their heritage and culture and not assimilate, when I go to another country while I do not represent the US, that is the one area where I embrace my heritage a bit. I have friendly banter with my mexican and brasilian friends, sometimes I think it does come across as disingenuous to them when other “gringos” root for their teams, I think they respect that I know about their team and players and I speak their language, eat their food, live with them, but still root for my team. Enough rambling for now, this has been/ is an interesting conversation.

  3. Oiza · July 7, 2010

    Part of the fun of the World Cup is rooting for a country you have absolutely no connection to, except perhaps emotional. I rooted for Nigeria, but wasn’t expecting them to do achieve anything substantial. And I was always quite frank that Ghana and Italy were my favorites. Ghana because I was there during the 2006 world cup when they burst onto the stage and shattered everyone’s expectations, and Italy because they were so entertaining last time as well (excluding racist behavior on the field for which the player received a well-deserved head butt). I wasn’t rooting for the U.S., and probably won’t for a very long time. I like the underdogs, and if they are an underrepresented country on the world stage, all the better. Yay black stars.

  4. Andrew · July 9, 2010

    I hear what you are saying, but in football/soccer the US are an underdog, even more so probably than a country like Ghana or Nigeria who have had more success. Obviously the US is not underrepresented internationally, but just on the field, the US is an underdog, which is part of the fun in rooting for the US in soccer as opposed to any other sport.

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