Claiming The World Cup
I’m married to a Russian guy who scorns American sports mania. Youth sports, pro sports, collegiate sports – he’s completly indifferent at best. Since I only care about sports if they involve my friends or relatives – or the victory of Michigan State over University of Michigan – this suits me to a tee. At World Cup time, however, I get to see how the other half lives. Each day of the last month has been built around the broadcast schedule for World Cup matches. Normal priorities for use of the TV and computer are completely suspended. It’s been all football — not soccer, people, futbol — all the time around here. For once, we’re not alone. This year’s World Cup is the best watched to date among U.S. audiences. The kids outside in the cul de sac and at the pool have been playing pick-up games of soccer instead of whatever it is they usually do. The TVs in the bars near my office are showing the World Cup coverage instead of baseball games. Men in the elevators at work have felt compelled to have opinions about the various national teams. Even with the U.S. team out of the picture, the excitement about the sport and this tournament has been palpable. We Americans are finally part of the world’s sport at last.
It sure feels great, doesn’t it? We’re all united in this moment!
Uh, yeah. Except for the part where the rest of the world would kind of like us to sit down and shut up? Yeah.
I have to believe that most forms of cultural expropriation begin with sincere, sometimes even informed appreciation by members of a majority group’s elite of a minority group’s music/art/literature/other desirable cultural artifact. Appreciation is fine. But as this elite spreads awareness of said artifact, two arguably bad things happen. First, the minority’s desirable cultural whatever-it-is comes to be valued and defined in terms of its relationship to the majority group’s conception of its own cultural values. Second, majority group members assume that knowledge of the cultural artifact is tantamount to knowledge of the minority group as a whole. These things are bad in the sense that they substitute for understanding of where the artifact fits within the minority group’s history and cultural tradition.
There’s no sense in which the population of the United States can be considered a majority in comparison with the population of the rest of the world. But we have always been the center of our own worldview, and – after all – we are the only remaining Super Power. White people will soon cease to be the majority demographic in the U.S. population, but what difference will that make as long as we continue to run the place? We’re special, whether we asked for it or not, and so is our culpability in the eyes of the world and of our own countrymen. To borrow a quote from novelist Mark Jacobs:
Would he be as hard on them if they were Portuguese, or Slovenian? On the other hand, these were people whose government was bigfooting around the world causing death and destruction in an orgy of misapplied power. However they voted, whatever they thought of their country’s imperial pretensions, they were responsible for the damage it wrought. They were not Portuguese.” (Forty Wolves)
So now we’ve discovered that soccer – excuse me, football – is more than just a version of football – uh, American football – that’s safe enough for girls to play. The appreciation is growing. What will become of it? For my part, I hope we don’t host a World Cup in this country any time soon, and I’m content to stay silent when the European commentators on ESPN remind viewers that the U.S. team will never reach the semifinals until our best athletes abandon basketball and footb – American football. It’s best that we just keep showing up for a while without calling too much attention to ourselves. The main thing is that our interaction with the rest of the world on equal terms and our progress in international soccer – football -whatEVER – competition keep pace with each other. That’s what will keep our admiration from turning to expropriation.