Apparently, rants about the World Cup generate a lot of traffic to this blog. With that in mind, one of the things that fascinates me about the World Cup is the orgy of self-examination it produces about when or whether Americans truly embrace
futbol football soccer?
From what I can ascertain, there are two clear camps. The enthusiast camp, epitomized by this Daniel Gross essay, suggests that it's just so hard to be a soccer fan in the United States:
Being a soccer fan at World Cup time in America is a little like being Jewish in December in a small town in the Midwest. You sense that something big is going on around you, but you're not really a part of it. And the thing you're celebrating and enjoying is either ignored or misunderstood by your friends, peers, and neighbors. It can be a lonely time.
Jonathan Chait's rejoinder to Gross' essay best epitomizes the rejectionist school of thought. Part of it is a genuine disdain for soccer, a game with lots of flopping and 0-0 ties and is ripe for Simpsons parodies. I suspect that another component is hostility to the trendiness of the game among DC media elites and intellectuals. My local sports radiop station has had a contest to name these people, and come up with "nilrods."
My hunch, however, is that neither of these descriptions fit the American attitude towards World Cup soccer. I've seen elevated but not overwhelming interest in the World Cup. Any honest assessment of soccer would have to acknowledge that the game can be boring for long stretches, punctuated by some moments of genuine excitement and athleticism -- not unlike baseball.
The fact is, there are plenty of sports in the United States that occasionally capture the intermittent attention of the casual sports fan, but won't "break through" the sports zeitgeist until and unless the United States fields a successful national team. This is how it tends to work with the Olympic team sports, and it's how it will work with the World Cup. If the United States can advance far in this tournament, Americans will become more interested; if not, they'll switch back to baseball and the NFL draft.
In this approach, the casual sports fan is using a strategy of "rational ignorance" -- i.e., not caring until the team is sufficiently successful. This is the kind of thing that political scientists tend to understand, but sports and politics junkies reject as somehow not representing true fandom. But it is how most people think about most things in life most of the time.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.