December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The 10 Billion

By |2018-03-21T18:22:39+01:00July 5th, 2006|Area 51|
Italian players celebrate winning the country's fourth World Cup title.

riters, endearingly pigeon-like, bob for answers to queries of their own making. In the days before Italy won its fourth world title, two preoccupied the many.

First: why is the World Cup such a wildly popular global event?

Second, why is it so unpopular in the United States?

In his soccer homage, “Fever Pitch,” Nick Hornby surrendered after 231 pages. “There is, then, nothing to describe it,” he wrote of his football fervor. “ I have exhausted all available options.”

Not so for Americans, for whom options are both habit and obligation.

Question one, the matter of global allure, pokes at question two, American apathy. Critics of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas broke division into two camps: the “scoffers” and the “understanders.” So it is in soccer.

Soccer is un-American because (and this is a limited selection):

— Americans like winners and soccer matches often end in draws that are unsuitably resolved.

— Scoring is low; Americans likes points and spreads, the motion of arithmetic.

— Rankings and ratings matter little because national competition is far-flung.

— Soccer is penny opera. It’s comical at times. Participants behave like adolescents. Players dive, feign injury, sulk; refs exaggerate their displeasure; coaches howl and gesticulate to no apparent end.

— The United States did not invent game. Instead, it trails those who’ve played it for a century.

— American soccer, the indigenous kind, is a “girl’s game” (its American emancipation was female; a women’s World Cup victory) attached to suburbia and privilege. Real sport belongs to the underprivileged acolytes who feed U.S. professional baseball and basketball — as they also feed the military.

Pounding soccer, in fact, is something of an American entertainment (even Osama bin Laden enters the howl: he likes the game, it’s said, a foul of sorts.)

But what seems most to unhinge Americans is that so many others can be enchanted by what they’re not.

It’s a hard quandary.

Americans — particularly those located outside major cities with ethnic populations — struggle to like a game that doesn’t play by their rules. Soccer remains among the few sports that doesn’t pander to American market needs. It doesn’t force-break action for commercials. Moreover, American sporting passion is tied to a team and to the city that team represents. Olympic patriotism is the exception, not the rule.

The response is to trivialize. Italy, England, and Germany, for example, are “soccer-mad” nations with “soccer-crazed’ fans. Madness is hardly an engaging national trait.

Fans also behave too extremely, violating an age-old rule of American detachment: “It’s just a game.” But it’s more, far more, and that more-ness generates dismissive comments that cover for envy.

A deeper offense is the one soccer commits against individualism. Fans are not only willing but even eager to subsume their destiny into the volatile fortunes of their national team. Again, this implies loss of control.

Soccer “madness” is a metaphor for mob rule among the civilized and incites isolationist condescension: Listen, say some pundits, I don’t mind it. I’m open-minded, so don’t get me wrong; just don’t make me like it. It’s not me.

That part, at least, is true. Soccer is not of the American ethos. It’s a romantic, sentimental game whose brilliance depends on style and dervish. It is capricious, at times languid, inconclusive, consistently subjective. The United States, for all its strengths, seeks results at the expense of caprice, which it disparages as a form of dissembling. But soccer, a shrewd exercise, allows stretches of dissembling. It revels in foreplay.

There’s more.

Modern Europe emerged from the collectivist barricades of the mid-19th century Paris communes, workers joining hands against oppressors. This bred not only communism but the ugly political nationalism that produced two major world wars. Latin and South American sipped from these traditions and, far poorer, gave them a harder, graver feel.

In 1930s Europe, the World Cup — won twice by teams from Fascist Italy — politicized national ambitions. Hitler, to keep pace, exalted the 1936 Olympics in Germany.

Soccer, for some, can’t be trusted. It’s a remnant of uprisings. It belongs to its fans the way a movement can belong to a mob. Its cameraderie is unfamilar.

Americans don’t “get” soccer — the going phrase — because to “get” it would imply yielding to the non-American patriotism that governs it: here are nations representing most of the planet’s population mesmerized by teams whose sudden good fortune can give them bragging rights over a medieval prize.

It is a world bowl of the kind America dreams of but cannot make real because it remains a tight nation of 300 million, not a sometimes united confederation of billions.

Every four years the World Cup gives semi-irrelevant states — Brazil, Germany, Italy, France (protected by alliances that assume the United States will shield them) — a global calling and cathartic means to spill sentiment and pride. It’s an act of dreaming. Americans, insulated, have no need to beg similar dreaming from sports because their patriotism depends on other aspects of national exclusivity.

They do not need to cede — particularly in sports — to anyone else’s quest for separate supremacy.

Among the most tolerant people on the planet, American are often bemused by the rituals of others.

The more entrenched the rituals, the more perplexing their meaning.

This makes World Cup soccer alien and maddening, the UN sport — another pejorative, at least in recent years.

The swirl combines to make the United States the left-out child at a world party. Best, under such circumstances, to insist that you never wanted in from the start, that all the fuss is a bit silly.

Best, like a child, to blame parents for heaping attention on a favored child.

All 55 million Italians and their 10 billion global kin.

Christopher P. Winner’s email address is

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.