View from America: I don't care about the World Cup

Disliking the spectacle is not an indication of American small-mindedness, but of our humanism.

world cup 88 (photo credit: )
world cup 88
(photo credit: )
Do you know where you are going to be for most of this coming month? Most people around the globe do. They are going to be in front of their television sets (even if they have to hike a few miles to a neighboring village) to watch the quadrennial sports extravaganza that dwarfs the Olympics in international interest, not to mention our piddling Super Bowl or baseball's World Series. From Tel Aviv to Timbuktu, football (Americans call it soccer) fans are ready for the World Cup that just kicked off in Germany. But despite the earnest attempts of many in the mainstream media to get us to care about it, most Americans don't. Are we wrong? No. Yes, I know, soccer is a great game and it seems as if more American kids are running around fields making futile efforts to play it than those honing their skills in our national pastime of baseball. Given the relentless plugging this event is receiving in the American media, I wonder if the majority of us who could care less about the World Cup are starting to feel a little bit guilty about it. Don't. Contrary to the trendy talk put about by many in our chattering classes, ignoring soccer is not a typical example of American chauvinism. Disliking the World Cup is not an indication of our small-mindedness, but of our humanism. Though many of us can't seem to get enough of the toxic mix of jingo patriotism and sports fanaticism, hasn't anybody noticed yet that this isn't a healthy thing? As crazy as team sports can get, there is a difference between the lunacy that matchups between heated baseball rivals like, say, the Red Sox and the Yankees breeds in supporters of those teams (I plead guilty to being a dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong Yankees fan), and the more dangerous lunacy that infects supporters of different countries. Red Sox fans may consider themselves a "nation" which members of the multi-generational tribe of Yankee fans regard with contempt, but there isn't any chance the cities of New York and Boston will ever go to war with each other, as two Latin American nations once did over a soccer game. It's true that the mythic power of sport is undeniable. But using athletes as surrogates for political causes - however just those causes might be - is also profoundly stupid. TAKE THE "miracle on ice," when an underdog bunch of American college ice hockey players defeated the mighty professionals of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. As a hockey fan, I was thrilled by it. But the widely believed notion that it helped win the Cold War is sheer hyperbole. After all, the Soviet players were just athletes in red uniforms, not KGB agents or off-duty Gulag prison guards being bested by all-American G.I. Joes. The outcome had nothing to do with the triumph of American values, much as it may flatter us to think so, any more than the numerous defeats inflicted on us at other times by that Soviet team portrayed the superiority of the totalitarian ideology of their masters in the Kremlin. In the same vein, fans of international team sports point to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the victories of African-American track hero Jesse Owens and the supposed humiliation he inflicted on Adolf Hitler as proof of the redemptive power of sport. But allowing the Olympics to be staged in Berlin was the greatest boost Hitler could have gotten from the world. It legitimized the Nazi tyranny in ways that no diplomatic triumph did. The same will apply to the communist regime in China in 2008 when the Olympics are held in Beijing. And as much as Americans were right to take pride in Owens's achievements, those who look closely at the story of the US team in Berlin know that the fourth of Owens's golds came at the expense of Marty Glickman, a Jewish athlete, who was bumped off the team at the last minute as the result of the machinations of Avery Brundage, the anti-Semitic head of the US Olympic committee (who would, 36 years later, earn further infamy with his decision to treat the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes as nothing more than a commercial break). ONE SPECIFICALLY Jewish reason to ignore the World Cup is the way international soccer treats the State of Israel. Though Israelis are as fanatically interested in the outcome of this tournament as any other non-American population, the federation that governs the cup is as anti-Zionist as the United Nations. The composition of the 32-team tournament varies every four years, based on a competition in which national teams contend against others in their region for the precious cup berths. But the Israelis never get in because they are not allowed to compete against other teams in the Middle East. Arab nations won't play them. But rather than disqualify the Arab teams via forfeit, the lords of soccer force the Israelis to compete in the European section of the draw, where they are invariably outgunned by the great soccer powers of France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Thus the talented Israelis will be home watching the games on TV this month while their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Iran are in Germany. So let us pause and say a prayer for the survival of American exceptionalism. The fact that America is different from the rest of the world - and our lack of interest in soccer is a symbol of this quality - is a source of some shame among many of our intellectuals; but I say we should be proud of it. Loving your country and standing up for its values has nothing to do with any sport. Keep the fan insanity where it belongs - with its focus on regional teams composed of players from anywhere in the world - and forget about mixing nationalism and sports logos. Personally, I have no intention of missing a single inning of baseball in order to watch soccer. Join me. Ignoring the World Cup is the patriotic, as well as the decent, thing to do! The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.