Something that makes us human, for good and bad alike, is our ability to project "meaning" onto practically anything. Objects and events can acquire value beyond any objective or merely empirical measure, depending on the observer or the participant. It can be unreasonable but it may also be irrepressible. I was reminded of this again while watching reports of yesterday's World Cup soccer semifinal in Brazil, in which the home team, long recognized as the sport's superpower, suffered an unprecedented humiliation, losing 7-1 to Germany. Coverage of the rout has been punctuated by reaction shots from the stands that would make you think it was September 11, 2001 in New York, or that the Space Shuttle had blown up before those people's eyes. These scenes of hysterical grief might confirm some Americans in their opinion that other countries take soccer too seriously. You don't get as much futbolphobia up here as you used to forty or twenty years ago when serious efforts were first made to turn soccer into a major spectator sport, but an irrational American aversion to the sport still manifests occasionally. This year Ann Coulter may have been the most notable naysayer, writing with tongue possibly in cheek that soccer's actually rising popularity was proof of national moral decline, but local and national sportswriters also still say that they don't get soccer and don't understand why they should. Soccer is unalterably foreign, the typical complaint goes, while the U.S. has major sports of its own, so why should it matter that the American team has never advanced past the quarterfinals of the World Cup? This overinsistent American indifference is at the opposite pole from Brazil's mania and grief, but it's just as much an irrational response.
American know-nothingism alone can't explain it, since the Olympic Games are just as foreign yet not as reviled. That's easy to explain: the U.S. is good at the Olympics, in gross medal-count terms if not in all events equally, while American soccer, while improving noticeably, still lags behind the established powers of Europe and Latin America. Soccer irks some Americans because it proves that we're not the best at everything. Accordingly, a lot of American hostility to soccer has a sour-grapes quality. Soccer is stupid, we're told, because you can't use your hands -- unless you're the goalie -- but you could just as easily say Americans are stupid if they can't master handling a ball with their feet only. It's more likely true, of course, that our country's best athletes gravitate to our own most popular sports -- baseball, basketball and NFL football -- while countries like Brazil may not have any other outlet for athletically gifted citizens. It's still tempting to make cultural explanations for American inferiority or indifference to the "beautiful game." We know that many sportswriters, claiming to speak for many fans, are bored by the low scores of soccer games -- though if that's the case the Germany-Brazil game may do more to raise interest in the sport here than any American success. From the spectator standpoint the choice is between quantity and quality, though for Americans quantity and quality may be synonymous. The sole goal in a high-level soccer game can be a dramatic moment matched, for me, only by the most intensely competitive NFL or NCAA football games. American fans may be less interested in such drama than in the spectacle of a slam dunk, a home run, a touchdown pass or a sack of the quarterback. American athletes may also be more interested in these things, all of which (except perhaps for homers) occur more frequently than soccer goals. The American weakness when it comes to soccer may be a matter of patience -- something you'd think self-styled conservatives, who love to decry anyone's inability to defer gratification, would understand.
Apart from further proving their xenophobia, does it matter that many Americans don't like soccer? It probably does to some people who feel shut out of something cool after our quadrennial early exit from the World Cup, or for whom our soccer problem may symbolize our inability to play well with other nations in other fields. I don't know if there really is a liberal enthusiasm for soccer and the World Cup to balance "conservative" antipathy, but I'd assume that American soccer fans have a more cosmopolitan attitude, if only based on recognition that the best players are not American, than the soccer haters. We need never become as passionate about the sport as some people in other countries, e.g. the Colombians who murdered a national-team goalie for giving up an own-goal against none other than the U.S. a few World Cups ago -- no sport should inspire that kind of passion -- but an aspiration to succeed in international soccer from a starting point of recognized inferiority rather than assumed superiority may not be an unhealthy thing. and would definitely be more healthy, culturally speaking, than the spoilsport contempt of our reactionaries. Between the extremes of obsession and hate there's a lot of middle ground to play on.