Cry the Beloved (Soccer) Country on the Fourth of July

Much, probably too much, has been made of Ann Coulter’s “j’accuse” on soccer, the metric system, and any person or phenomenon not born and bred in the land she claims to love. Writing in jest and obvious haste, the conservative pundit construes the world’s most popular game as the province of elite mothers anxious to preserve their children’s self-esteem, the haven of spineless liberals afraid to take the heat, and the stubborn refuge of immigrants who refuse to learn English. “But enough is enough,” she declares. “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay.”

I love soccer as much as anyone on earth, have played the game since high school, and once made a living covering the sport in Europe (ou sont les nieges d’antan, I ask). Yet even I find America’s ambivalence to soccer quaint—the same way I find ounces and inches and 120 volt current endearing. There is nothing inherently superior or edifying in soccer compared to other sports. They all have their benefits and charms and quirks. If Americans choose to turn their backs on a game played by billions of people on the planet because they find it pointless or foreign or dull, so be it. It’s not like they’re rejecting international law or invading Iraq.

Still, Coulter does get the beautiful game all wrong. “The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport,” she writes, clearly never having cringed at the thud of skulls colliding on a penalty area header, or dry-heaved at slide tackles that shatter ankles or slice gashes into thighs large enough to fit a man’s foot. True, third graders in White Plains may be spared the stocks and pillories if they flub a penalty kick in coed competition. But the pro game can be merciless and even fatal to those who err. Moacyr Barbosa, the Brazilian national team goalkeeper who gave up the winning goal against Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup, lived in disgrace until his death in 2000. Colombia’s captain Andres Escobar was gunned down in Medellin a few days after he deflected the ball into his own net against the United States in the 1994 World Cup. I bet either of them would have traded places with Bill Buckner or Sleepy Floyd.

But it doesn’t matter that Coulter doesn’t care enough about soccer to get her facts right. Because her target isn’t soccer. It’s our country, one she views through an even darker glass—a decadent and shackled land where socialists and soccer moms and immigrants clinging to a stupid game in which you can’t even use your hands deprive real Americans of their inalienable rights to fame, fortune, and arrogance. “Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer,” she writes. “In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks, and drop fly balls—all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate.”

Forget that Italian or Argentine or South African fans can catalogue every step and misstep taken by 22 players over 90 minutes. Or that professional soccer matches are played in front of teeming crowds. All sports, including soccer, celebrate individual achievement. But at their very best they celebrate something more sublime—the capacity of a group to be greater than the individuals who form it. So many of our country’s greatest sport moments have been team moments: the 1980 Miracle on Ice; the 2004 Red Sox comeback against the Yankees. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant didn’t win five NBA titles. Their Los Angeles Lakers teams did.

Many if not most of our country’s greatest moments have also been team moments. Fifty five delegates from twelve states wrangled in Philadelphia to frame our Constitution. Nearly half a million Americans—and thousands of universities and industries–signed on to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. More than 16 million Americans stepped up to the plate to serve during World War II; nearly a million of them died. Immortality may be a baseball diamond’s best friend. But we Americans really knock it out of the park when we’re selfless.

“I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer,” Coulter writes, perhaps expecting us to laugh, or take offense, or both. My great grandfather was born in a crappy village in central Ukraine. His son, my grandfather, didn’t cross the ocean in steerage so I could craft alliterations around Lionel Messi’s left-footed lightness. With his sixth grade education and halting English, my grandfather wouldn’t have known what Coulter was talking about, let alone read the offside trap she’d laid for soccer nerds and globalists and deviants who measure their lives in grams and meters and yellow cards. Thanks to him I have that luxury—even the luxury to laugh at such transparent liberal baiting. But I’m also offended. And not as a person who loves soccer. I’m offended as a person who loves America.