Why Libs Really Love Soccer

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Jermaine Jones of the U.S. fights for the ball with Belgium's Daniel Van Buyten during their 2014 World Cup round of 16 game at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador July 1, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

As the excitement surrounding soccer’s World Cup surges and sputters toward its grand climax, cultural arbiters in New York and Washington express their indignation at various curmudgeonly conservatives who dare to express our distaste for the elite-embraced “beautiful game.”

The most important question isn’t, however, why so many on the right feel indifferent, at best, toward soccer. The true puzzle is why so many on the left, particularly in this Age of Obama, feel impelled to extol the virtues of the sport cherished in most of the world as “football.”

Right-wing reluctance to board the onrushing soccer bandwagon shouldn’t be hard to understand. William F. Buckley memorably described the conservative as a courageous fellow willing to “stand athwart history and yell stop.” At the moment, nothing is trendier than newly-minted soccer devotees feigning insider savvy over football “matches” that unfold on a broad green “pitch” and often result in scores of “nil-nil.” Sophisticates look down their long-noses at hoi-polloi ignorance of the great gulf between a “goalie” (as in hockey) and a “goal tender” (as in soccer).

The conservative temperament instinctively and admirably recoils at the fashionable and the faddish, rightly preferring the timeless, tried and true. This impulse protected many of us from the embarrassments of bell bottoms and Nehru jackets, along with Maoist politics, in the bad old days of Jimmy Carter, as it keeps us safe from global warming hysteria today. Right-wingers generally take pride in exalting the commitments of our honorable ancestors. My late father loved baseball; even my immigrant grandfather relished the classic summer game, even if his limited English denied him access to its deeper complexities. Nevertheless, he liked to go out to Shibe Park to root for the Phillies because it helped him feel like a real American.

Liberals, on the other hand, enjoy the experience of soccer precisely because it makes them feel less American. They value the beautiful game for the same reason they enjoy singing “We Are the World,” or stubbornly support the U.N., or automatically assume the artistic superiority of films with subtitles. True believers on the left prefer to think of themselves as “citizens of the world,” with the overwhelming majority of self-described liberals telling a recent Pew Research survey that they seldom felt proud of their own country. Soccer provides a perfect mechanism for transcending old-school nationalism: it’s not only a game of global rather than distinctively American appeal, but what’s even better is that the mighty United States isn’t even particularly good at it.

Where else but soccer could you ever read the headline “Belgium Beats USA!” and take it as anything more than a parody or a punch line? All right, if there were an international competition in chocolate-making the Belgians might also prevail, but there’s no meaningful arena of human endeavor in which one of Europe’s most fragile and irrelevant nations could humble the world’s only superpower.

Even though they identified themselves as strenuous supporters of team USA, liberals actually cherished the idea of a pip-squeak society like the Belgians (where the Flemings and Walloons can’t even agree on waffles) humbling the swaggering Yankee bullies. It’s more than the normal affection for a plucky underdog: it’s a deep-seated desire to see the American behemoth cut down to size, looking no more significant or powerful than any other international competitor. President Obama sounded precisely this note in expressing his (utterly predictable) enthusiasm for soccer to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. “The US exceeded expectations,” said the apostle of hope and change –who’s personally fallen far short of expectations. The president proudly suggested that the American team had gone from its prior status as “a non factor” to becoming “a middle of the pack team.”

“We’re not Germany yet, or Italy or France or Argentina or Brazil,” he shrugged. “But we’re now in the mix.”

These brief comments actually reveal some of the irreducible differences between left and right in the United States of 2014. The Left celebrates the idea of the USA as a “middle of the pack team”; the Right prefers a demonstration of unassailable American dominance. Liberals like the idea that Americans might abandon their parochialism and place themselves “in the mix,” going mad for the same game that’s admired in Belize, Burundi and Bhutan. Conservatives instead emphasize American distinctiveness, with our long-standing enthusiasm for home-grown, quintessentially Yankee diversions like baseball and football. The fact that these contests might feel unintelligible and odd to many millions of the uninitiated around the world only makes our uniquely American sports all the more worthy of home-team backing.

It’s a stark choice: do we want to become more like the rest of the world or should other societies become more like America? Would our culture benefit or suffer if we sacrificed our distinctive norms, quirks and traditions for the sake of global homogeneity and transnational uniformity? Should the United States welcome middle-of-the-pack status or strive for world leadership?

That’s the wearisome state of play on the pitch of ideas as the ball caroms wildly from right to left and back again. With any luck at all our home team can still defy the odds and score, repeatedly, against the fatuous if stylish opposition.

This column originally appeared at on July 7, 2014.

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Comments (9)

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  1. Gary Liniger  •  Jul 14, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    This is one of the dumbest articles I have read in my 70 years on this earth. Albeit soccer is very boring. First where is the proof that liberals embrace soccer more than conservatives? Does he have a survey to back up this claim? Is George Will less patriotic because be roots for the loveable losers the Cubs? And just how do you get from the President saying our soccer has improved to liberals just want the nation to be mediocre. Amazing logic or lack there of.

    • Matt  •  Jul 19, 2014 at 9:18 am

      I totally agree, this idea that only liberals like soccer is absurd.

  2. vanno  •  Jul 16, 2014 at 12:14 am

    Good article. Golf is the only world sport I can embrace. It’s the hardest sport on earth. Lefties love soccer because it’s a bunch of poor kids who get center stage for a while. Helps soothe the perpetual guilt. Btw, I wonder where most of those great soccer players live these days? Take a wild guess.

    • striker  •  Jul 16, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Vanno’s comment is very revealing. One of the reasons he hates soccer is because poor kids get to have center stage for a while! Why don’t those poor kids emulate Tiger Woods instead? Maybe because unlike Tiger Woods, whose father was affluent enough to pay for golf lessons and send him to a nice school that had a golf team, poor kids have to play the sports their school can afford. Golf is more boring than soccer, doesn’t teach teamwork, is not physically strenuous, and is much more elitist — most golf courses are not located near poor communities.

      As someone who served 2 years active duty in the Vietnam-era U.S army — while most super-patriot talk radio “jocks” did everything they could to avoid service in the military — I don’t have to go to a boring baseball game to feel like a “real American”. I can enjoy “We Are The World” not because it’s trendy or “Maoist”, but because I don’t have a psycopathic need to prove “dominance” every time I encounter a foreign culture. There is actually a recent university study that says tv & radio talk show hosts rank the 3rd-highest in psycopathic traits, including a need for dominance!

      Did Michael ever hear of the “Australian ballot” — the idea of a secret ballot– which the U.S. enacted into law in 1884 after other European countries had already adopted it? Surely he knows slavery was abolished in this country following England’s lead. Likewise, the abolition of child labor -opposed by many conservatives as “increasing business costs” — was a foreign idea which we belatedly enacted into law. I’m secure enough in my patriotism to want to know why Germany exports twice an many cars as we do; why Norway has a far lower % of their population in prison and a lower rate of recidivism than we do (we are now #1!) Whatever liberal hostility exists toward “pride in country” is mostly a reaction to the mindless embrace of “parochialism” as a value in itself.

      • Woody  •  Jul 19, 2014 at 9:13 am

        Beautifully put!!

      • Victor  •  Jul 24, 2018 at 6:17 pm

        as a legal immigrant from former Soviet Union, I played soccer before and always love soccer. I consider myself as a conservative, and I think soccer is a sport which millions people like and enjoy and it is nothing to do with political or cultural views. Not smart at all to mock people who love soccer, and it is also nothing to do with American patriotism.

  3. annie  •  Jul 16, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    “Liberals, on the other hand, enjoy the experience of soccer precisely because it makes them feel less American.” Ha! Love that; it’s intuitively true!! Europe is ALL about soccer and we’re supposed to be like Europe, right??
    I’d like to know how much brain damage is incurred w/all those stupid head butts to the soccer ball, I bet it rivals football.

  4. Matt  •  Jul 19, 2014 at 9:20 am

    My favorite winter Olympic sport is curling, so how should I vote next election..

  5. Scott S.  •  Jul 27, 2014 at 10:33 am

    I think I understand where Michael was trying to go (anything that is non-traditional, especially if it is counter-culture, is automatically more likely to be popular with the left..and I tend to agree) but, I don’t thinnk that this was a good article. It must be kept in-mind that, while many find the sport boring (I played in HS and loved it but STILL find it boring to watch), it has found fertile ground in the US with tons of adolescent leagues (both of my sons played soccer) and nearly 100% of high schools having a team. Sorry Michael…point not well made here.

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