Is World Cup Soccer Too Populist for the Right?

Is World Cup Soccer Too Populist for the Right?

Mark Engler: Is World Cup Soccer Too Populist for the Right?

Kudos to Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and Nation sportswriter David Zirin, who have each offered interesting commentary on apparent right-wing distaste for World Cup soccer.

Specifically, Glenn Beck doesn’t like it. On his radio program, he ranted:

It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us. It doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.

He later added for good measure: “Those who like the World Cup… they’re the most likely to riot;” while, “I haven’t seen the baseball riots.”

Marcotte’s post responds to these and other quotes compiled by Media Matters for America. She notes:

It doesn’t help things…that Americans tend to associate soccer with women and girls, and with immigrant populations. Which I suppose is amusing to the rest of the world, but in the U.S. it just means that soccer can be used handily by conservative white dudes as a symbol of everything they consider inferior. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the World Cup’s growing popularity in the U.S. is strictly due to immigration, Title IX, and hipstery urban liberal types—I think the marketing blitz probably has a whole lot to do with it—but the perception is that all these hated trends are the only reason for World Cup’s popularity. Or the popularity of soccer in general, especially the growth in youth leagues, pick-up games, and even MLS.

This shores up a concern I’ve had that soccer is increasingly becoming a touchstone for racists who target their hatred at Mexican-Americans, alongside other cultural markers like Cinco de Mayo and even, amazingly, the eating of salsa. There’s already reports of racist incidents that center around soccer, such as this Texas teacher who flipped out on a student who was wearing the jersey of a Mexican team.

Similarly, David Zirin takes on Beck and G. Gordan Liddy–not too tough a target, but one whose crap nevertheless deserves to shown for what it is–who argued on his own radio program: “Whatever happened to American exceptionalism?…This game… originated with the South American Indians and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior.”

Zirin comments:

Dear Lord, where do we begin? First of all, I always find it amusing when folks like Beck say, “We don’t like soccer” when it is by far the most popular youth sport in the United States. It’s like saying, “You know what else American kids hate? Ice cream!” Young people love soccer not because of some kind of commie-nazi plot conjured by Saul Alinsky to sap us of our precious juices, but because it’s–heaven forefend–fun.

Among adults, the sport is also growing because people from Latin America, Africa, and the West Indies have brought their love of the beautiful game to an increasingly multicultural United States. As sports journalist Simon Kuper wrote very adroitly in his book Soccer Against the Enemy, “When we say Americans don’t play soccer we are thinking of the big white people who live in the suburbs. Tens of millions of Hispanic Americans [and other nationalities] do play, and watch and read about soccer.” In other words, Beck rejects soccer because his idealized “real America”–in all its monochromatic glory–rejects it as well. To be clear, I know a lot of folks who can’t stand soccer. It’s simply a matter of taste. But for Beck it’s a lot more than, “Gee. It’s kind of boring.” Instead it’s, “Look out whitey! Felipe Melo’s gonna get your mama!”

As for Liddy, let’s be clear. There is not in fact hard anthropological evidence that early soccer games were played with a human head. Interestingly, though, there is an oft-told legend that the sport took root in England in the 8th century because the King’s army playfully kicked around the detached cranium of the conquered Prince of Denmark. Notice that this tall-tale is about Europe not “South American Indians.” I think we’re seeing a theme here.

For my part, I’m surprised that segments of the right are willing to cede the soccer-watching public to progressives. After all, it wasn’t long ago when newly minted “soccer moms” exploded onto the political scene as a demographic of supposedly decisive significance for candidates of both major parties. The internationalist and multicultural aspects of the sport notwithstanding, I can testify that league soccer was indeed a leading athletic pursuit for young people throughout wide swaths of Des Moines, Iowa, and its suburbs during my 1980s childhood. Its popularity has only grown there since. Des Moines might not be the Bible Belt epicenter of Tea Party support, but it is definitely Middle America. And, last I checked, Iowa was a swing state.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED in browsing the Dissent archives on this topic, Daniel A. Bell has an article from 2006 entitled “The Politics of Sports: Watching the World Cup in Beijing.” It has some very interesting bits on why Chinese fans in general loathed rooting for the underdog, and what happened when one television commentator excitedly trumpeted the victory of one of soccer’s traditional powerhouses over Australia with calls of “Long Live Italy!”– or “literally, ‘Italy, Ten Thousand Years!’ [an idiom that] used to be invoked by enthusiastic crowds for Mao and the Communist Party (‘Chairman Mao, Ten Thousand Years!’).”