Hillel at Michigan 1926/27 - 1945
Struggles of Jewish Identity in a Pivotal Era

Andy's Published Papers

Thirty Years of Bundestag Presence
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Human-Animal Relationships
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Other Reviews of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism

Sports Section

"On Sports: Old World, New Glory"
By Stefan Fatsis

The Wall Street Journal
Page W8
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

EVERY TIME a team of male American soccer players does something that transcends the sport's passionate but small domestic niche, it becomes obligatory to search for meaning.

It happened in 1990, when the U.S. qualified for the final stages of the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. It happened in 1994, when the team upset Colombia and advanced to the second round of the World Cup held in the U.S. It happened in 1998, when the Americans slunk home from France dead last in the 32-team tournament.

The search has always involved the same set of questions: Why isn't the U.S. a soccer nation? Is the U.S. becoming a soccer nation? Can the U.S. ever become a soccer nation?

It happened again Wednesday, when the 300-to-1-shot Americans shocked the world (a sports cliche that for once may actually apply), beating Portugal 3-2 in their World Cup opener in South Korea. Those happy few of us who set predawn alarms were rewarded with American goals in the game's fourth, 30th and 36th minutes. The last one, a textbook pass, cross and header sequence, had me grabbing my head with both hands, my mouth dropping like a trap door. Three-nil! The Portuguese were pretournament favorites. One of them, Luis Figo, is the reigning world player of the year. And we won. Go Figo.

So it was a milestone, right? A step toward U.S. domination of the rest of the planet's favorite game, right? A sure sign that we'll soon be a nation of scarf-waving, song-singing futbol fans, right?

I love the beautiful game, have sacrificed two knees playing it (and playing it badly, no less) and would enjoy nothing more than for it to matter dearly here the way it does in Europe or Latin America or Africa (they were dancing in the streets of Dakar last week after Senegal beat France). But when it comes to the inevitable questions at World Cup time about soccer's fate in America, I plead realism.

It isn't that there is something inherently un-American about soccer -- not enough scoring, too many ties, not enough pauses, too few statistics -- that it's too, um, amorphous and intellectual. And it isn't that there is something too populist about it, either -- that a sport so linked with the working class elsewhere can't succeed here because we like to think we don't have classes. And it isn't that soccer is associated too closely with kids -- especially, horrors, girls -- and we like our team sports manly.

There is some truth to all of those notions, and they definitely influence how we take our sports, but none explains why soccer will always be marginalized next to our big team games. The reality is much simpler: Soccer's fate in America was sealed more than a century ago.

Some version of a kicking game has been played in America since Jamestown in 1609. The modern form crossed the Atlantic in the 1850s; the first club outside of England was in Boston in 1862. At the time, there were two styles of play, one involving mostly kicking and the other permitting the use of hands. They were so blurred that a match on Nov. 7, 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers is considered the first intercollegiate soccer game and the first football game in America.

Four years later, Princeton, Yale, Columbia and Rutgers agreed on soccer-like rules. Harvard held out for the rugby-like game. The showdown came in 1875. Harvard and Yale played using both goals (soccer) and tries (rugby). Harvard won. Yale caved, and adopted the rugby style. Princeton followed. The kicking game was out.

America already had baseball. Yale and Walter Camp would transform rugby into modern football. James Naismith would invent basketball. Turn-of-the-century America wasn't just becoming an urban, industrial society, it was picking its sports. Soccer was relegated to social clubs and factories, played by immigrants who knew the game because England was exporting it around the world. In our insular, nativist nation, that was another blow.

"Precisely because it was blocked out from the American sports space, soccer had to retreat into the niche of old-world ethnicity," says Andrei Markovits, a University of Michigan political scientist and co-author of "Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism," published last year. "That stigmatized it for the rest of the 20th century."

The book's title is borrowed from a term (exceptionalism, not offside) used to describe the absence of socialism in America. The point is that the U.S. stands alone in soccer as it does in political economy, and probably always will. If a sport wasn't firmly rooted here by 1930, Prof. Markovits says, chances are it won't ever be. "You can transfer a lot -- rock 'n' roll, food," he says. "But it's very hard to transfer these sports cultures."

That doesn't mean the U.S. won't win a World Cup, or even do it by 2010, a target date set a few years ago. (The women's team already has won it, but women's soccer is different, shunned by the sport's power countries and developed in the U.S.) Nor does it mean soccer won't establish itself as a solid fan sport, with a men's league that attracts 20,000 spectators to smallish stadiums, and even makes money. Soccer can do those things without the entire nation agonizing over a midfielder's injury (England) or praying for a championship to ease economic hardship (Argentina) -- without, that is, caring irrationally about the national side. (We care irrationally about our local teams.) We even can do those things without being part of the greater world soccer culture. (An English friend railed at me because an American announcer on ESPN referred to penalty kicks as "PKs." "They're penalties!" he said. "Just penalties!")

So don't read too deeply into the U.S. team's performance at the World Cup. Consider this: The stunner over Portugal, impressive as it was, didn't even ensure the Americans' passage into the tournament's second round.

Please also visit Andy Markovits' official University of Michigan website.