I’m working on new work for the Summer Art Market, June 9th and 10th. I’ll finish in studio in a couple of weeks, then shift to framing and prepping for it. A couple of days after the show the World Cup starts. In theory, I’ll have lots of money from the show, and I’ll spend many afternoons in downtown bars, starting my day with eggs and beer and football. That’s the theory.
The USA isn’t in the Finals this year. Since making a relatively strong run in Brazil 2014, they’d sputtered under two coaches, Juergen Klinsman and Bruce Arena, before an unlikely but mostly well deserved combination of results eliminated them on the last day of qualification. The team had a certain amount of talent, but never any real consistency in play.
There was a real howl from the fans, many of whom were 20-somethings who’d bought their first USA shirts in June, 2014. It’s heartening to see such a failure evoke an indignant reaction to those of us who remember decades when not reaching the World Cup Finals meant…crickets. But youth is not given to reflection, and many of the reactions were simplistic and not very well informed:
The US should NEVER fail to qualify, they howled, ignoring the fact that some far more consistent performers, e.g. Italy, Netherlands, Chile, had failed to qualify, and the quality of play in the US’ confederation has been rapidly improving. Getting into the World Cup is hard, no matter who you are.
The US Soccer Association leadership is corrupt and only interested in selling rights fees, they wailed, ignoring the fact that the leadership has been actively campaigning against FIFA corruption for years now, and the rights fees they’re selling are World Cup rights fees, which went down in value by millions when the US did not qualify. There is corruption in football, yes, but applying a blanket stereotype to an organization working for reform is ignorant.
Other, even more preposterous pronouncements followed: The USA will never challenge for the World Cup unless a laundry list of “reforms” meant to mimic the structure of their favorite ‘proper’ football league, the British Premier League, were immediately instituted in our own domestic league, MLS, they screeched. These include promotion and relegation, and a 20-team ‘balanced schedule.’
This ignores the fact that though Major League Soccer, formed in 1996 as a condition of having the World Cup here in ’94, is making solid growth, with four well established major leagues ahead of it, it is unlikely to match the BPL’s position in Britain very soon. It’s likely that BPL is more popular in THIS country, in fact, if we are to judge by TV ratings and the expensive English kits collected by adoring twenty-somethings. Because of that, MLS has had to find its own formula.
MLS has stretched the level of corporatism already rampant in world football with a single entity league structure and salary caps. This has made investment in the still fragile league attractive to the types of oligarchs that tend to own big teams around the world, but those billionaires are unlikely to welcome relegation to a lower league, especially as infrastructure in the lower leagues remains spotty. And TV networks see no profit in imposing the 20-team footprint of a country of 50 million onto this vast land of 300 million. Euro-snobbery is when you unreflectively expect all leagues to operate exactly like the Premier League. This is textbook euro-snobbery.
Nonetheless, some reforms are definitely needed, particularly in youth development, which tends to serve suburban white kids while ignoring Hispanic and African kids. Soccer is now ranked number two (behind NFL) in popularity in certain prized demographic groups, and the fact that the new fans see it as something worth agitating about, however magical their thinking, is a great sign. Football, and the World Cup, are kind of about magical thinking, anyway. After the USA crashed out, many fatuously vowed to not watch the Cup this year, or to become permanent fans of other nations. Fat chance. But millennials are not the only football fans who lack logic.
A Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, editors: As in the 2006 World Cup. This is a book about how football affects entire nations in ways that defy common sense. I got this during the run up to the highly anticipated, but ultimately disappointing, USA run in the Germany World Cup. The US was ranked number five in the world that year, in complete defiance of common sense, as was proven on the pitch.
It was to go in the bag of culled books to take to the used book store for trade and for shelf space. But as sometimes happens, in scanning it, I got hooked again. Though it sounds outdated, the editors’ approach, much like Franklin Foer’s in How Soccer Explains the World, (highly recommended) is not to concentrate on what the world says about football, but on what football says about the countries who play it. In this case, many of the national teams are the same ones back for the current World Cup, and the observations here are still quite relevant to the cultural landscape, as football tends to be.
As great change and the frustrations of progressives shakes the country, we acknowledge that American exceptionalism in sports and in other areas is a real obstacle to American progress, but even liberals might not realize how steeped in it we are. After all, even liberals wear shirts that proudly proclaim their home city’s league team “World Champions”, when the only teams they’ve beaten come from suburbs outside of Boston or Atlanta. The essays here form a travelogue of footballing nations and bring their own failures and triumphs, baked into their cultures, into relief. The millennials who howl do value the power of travel and football to bring nations together. They distrust the spread of global corporatism. Their complaints about Team USA are simplistic, but they are not xenophobic. In them, we hear hope for real change.
There is a weird sort of justice in football. Thomas Jones talks about the justice of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal vs. England in Mexico ’86 (One of the first WC games I can remember watching on American TV) in the context of the fall of the Argentinian junta after the Falklands War of 1982. He is not the only one to mention that war, with the posturing of a conservative government in England that the dispossessed hooligans in England instinctively lashed out against.
Tom Vanderbilt and Eric Schlosser write about exceptionalism in other white, progressive societies, Netherlands and Sweden, respectively. And Sayid Sayrafezadeh and Binyavanga Wainaina wrestle with the complexities and culture shock of leaving more anglicized societies to visit ancestral nations (Iran and Togo). Strong men, ayatollahs, and juntas use football no less than corporate oligarchs. Supporter culture often stands in opposition to these forces, and that’s why, in the world, football is the only game that matters.
Other favorites: Robert Coover in post-Franco Spain, watching the 1982 WC in an immigrant neighborhood, in the stadium of the OTHER Barcelona football club, and Wendell Steavenson on the political currents surrounding football in Tunisia under Ben Ali, later deposed in the Arab Spring, along with James Surowiecki, who writes about disillusionment in Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Dave Eggers writes the USA segment (surplus to requirements this year!) with an exaggerated humor that manages to both highlight and embody American sports exceptionalism. Foer himself contributes an afterword on which political system is more likely to win the Cup. Fascist dictatorships and military juntas have gotten a large share, but social democracy is still the best system. Proto-fascist, post-truth oligarchies are not mentioned, and perhaps we can get a more winning approach at the voting booth soon; by relegating the oligarchs, and promoting someone less a buffoon. Here is the real corruption.
All of the essays are interesting, even the second time through; some barely touch on soccer at all. All in all, this is a hard book to put in the trade bag, and I would welcome something like this for each World Cup, but sales were probably never impressive. The millennials, who are way ahead of most Americans in their understanding of why the world is so passionate about ‘proper’ football, will change that, and sooner than we think.