Football in America: A Square Peg in A Round Hole
For the second time in recent memory, the Americans are attempting to host a World Cup. The Go USA bid for 2018 and 2022 may have generated less media attention than its European competitors, but make no mistake: the Americans want it. Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Kissinger, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman have all lent their names behind the cause. Even that wise old football head Arnold Schwarzenegger has jumped on the wagon. Yet everything about Go USA reminds us of why football and America, like square pegs and round holes, are just not meant to be together.
Take the opening statement on the Go USA website: No nation embodies the values and spirit of the FIFA World Cup quite like the United States. Whether you choose to call it soccer, football or futbol, it is a game that, in so many ways, tells our nation’s story. Let’s start with the vernacular: soccer. Technically, it’s true, to call it ‘soccer’ is not incorrect. The word, a shorthand version of ‘Association Football’, became popular in England in the nineteenth century to distinguish the game from other forms of football, like rugby. But we’re not in the nineteenth century anymore: football has long since established itself as England’s pre-eminent national sport, some way ahead of rugby or cricket. It is football – not soccer – that divides and unites the country. Football nations are football nations.
In America, they call it soccer not because of any evolutionary time-lag, but because ‘football’ has long been appropriated by a far more popular sport that goes by the same name. Here, football is played by men wearing padded leotards and face paint: the ball is a weird oval shape, the goal posts look like they could topple over at any moment, and every four to six seconds the game is interrupted by a toe-curling rendition of The Star Spangled Banner or some advert for dental floss. To a non-American, it is like watching Gladiators: a playground for neo-Neanderthals, a barbarian’s paradise. Call it what you like, this is the game – along with basketball and baseball – that captures American hearts and minds. Soccer is football’s poor cousin on this side of the Atlantic, and it always has been.
Every time the USA has been involved in a World Cup, the nation proudly announces its arrival at long last on the world football stage. Witness the mass media hysteria that followed the USA’s 1-1 draw with England during this summer’s World Cup: capturing Bin Laden would not generate such frenzy. Imagine that England had managed a tie with the USA in the Baseball World Cup (my American cousins assure me that such a thing exists.) It would surely be an occasion to feel really proud to be British. But would The Sun proclaim the dawn of a new sporting age? Would Sky Sports News show recurring pictures of jubilant Englishmen throwing baseballs and making home runs around Trafalgar Square? Would The Queen transform Buckingham Palace into a baseball field and re-name her favorite corgi Babe Rooth? Inconceivable.
But there’s an added chutzpah behind the current US campaign. Including 2018, only four nations have hosted the World Cup twice – Brazil, Italy, France and Germany. By any standard, these are the world’s leading football nations: between them they have won 13 of the 19 World Cup medals since the tournament began in 1930. Brazil last hosted the tournament in 1950; France waited exactly sixty years to host for a second time in 1998; and Italy (1934 and 1990) just slightly less. Only the Germans, who staged the tournament in 1974 and 2006, can claim to have hosted the World Cup twice within a half-century – and technically they were two different countries.
The US, meanwhile, last hosted the World Cup in 1994 – practically yesterday in World Cup time. That bid was successfully built upon the persuasive argument that football was just starting to take off in this country: bringing the World Cup to American soil would herald a new sporting era for North America. That came and went, and not much changed. The MLS remains a poor imitation of a professional football league; there is still no such thing as a genuinely world-class American football player; and football as such is still ranked well behind the more popular American sports. Apart from hubris, what could possibly give America the idea that it deserves to host the World Cup twice in one generation? It’s bloody cheeky, if you ask me. But then I’m English.