he World Cup is not the United States’ event. It can’t be. It emerged from era of big-power colonialism, class struggle and conquering catharsis. Even on a post-colonial global stage it exercises a voodoo that the United States, never poor, never humbled, never on the fringes, humors but doesn’t understand.
National team soccer, like the revived Olympics, was an adjunct of 20th century modernity. Sports competitions should serve as surrogates for the better-known expression of national fervor, war. Early on, national teams played to populism but stood for flag and regime.
The roots of the Cup are in post-World War I destitution. Uruguay hosted and won the first tournament in 1930, beating Argentina before 93,000 fans in Montevideo. The U.S. was invited as a novelty. Only four European teams even made the boat trip. Players were poor, fans poorer.
Italy hosted and won the 1934 Cup, putting propaganda first. It defended its title four years later in France. “Vincere o morire,” roared Mussolini. This was the militarist precursor to “Forza Italia.” Players wore black Fascist armbands.
Most pre-World War II spectators were the European and South American equivalents of stokers or “bleacher bums,” blue collar folk, some unemployed, others barely literate, encouraged to see fandom and heroic performances as an escape from a deadening day-to-day. Rivalry was a scripture that temporarily suspended bad times.
Even as the booming United States bound sports to entertainment, seeing profit in a fun-for-the-family hybrid, the World Cup never kicked its feral habits, even with the development of a postwar middle class. Most of the real world remained poor.
In the Cold War years between 1950 and 1986, the Cup was hosted by democracies and dictatorships alike: Brazil. Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, England, Mexico (twice), West Germany, Argentina and Spain. While the U.S. developed suburban living, the rest of the world still picked at postwar scabs or foraged for new ones. When underdog East Germany defeated powerful West Germany in 1974, Berlin crowed and Bonn drooped.
Draws saved face, allowing each side to claim moral victory. They also afforded a civics lessons: Instant reward and immediate clarity weren’t forgone conclusions. If life’s parade included triumph and heroism, it mostly delivered ambiguity.
By contrast, North American sports worked to erase ambiguity. Responses to euphoria and disappointment were etched into the social fabric. Draws were eliminated and replays introduced to catch and repair human error. Winning and losing became the only known behavioral channels, with no allowance for undecided outcomes. Ambiguity was portrayed as a gross lack of “closure” and inimical to a participatory democracy.
A country that works so diligently to manufacture the tools and methods of democracy can be forgiven for disdaining the unpredictable and being forced to endure the rules of others, unless it wins. Take stoppage time, the make-up minutes calculated at the end of each 45-minute half. The referee alone decides them. Ebb-and-flow is subjective, imprecise, a secret. Referees still belong to an aristocracy not answerable to instant replay or video reviews.
The game also disdains paid cheerers. Fans are its street noise. Worse still, there are no time outs. Players are improvisational actors in a poor man’s theater without a script. For Americans, the absence of pauses is roiling. Corporations need artificial breaks to advertise their products, interruptions that sports fans have grown to expect (for some, American football’s Super Bowl is a battle of the best TV commercials).
In this sense, World Cup games are a relics: They are about only their own unfolding, mostly unattached to postmodern social engineering and consumer encroachments.
Fans also invest in players, reviving the drama of citizenship and national belonging. Large or small nation doesn’t matter.
That the World Cup is held every four years and not annually (in the interim encouraging debate, skepticism, speculation, national pride or shame) is another refutation of immediacy. Many major countries fail to qualify — this time Russia, China, Sweden. Entitlement is a variable.
A respected American columnist, defending soccer in an Internet debate, said the sport “rewarded neurotic creativity” and labeled the World Cup an event that “reinforced a tragic view of the universe.” The game, he added, was about “constantly reorganizing spaces,” in which the latest shift might seem hopeful, even emboldening, but that in the end stalemate would probably mar any breakthrough.
A bit like the war in Afghanistan.