he most-watched sporting event in the world has begun, and most of my fellow conservatives in America are going to miss it.
While some of you no doubt are thinking that the Super Bowl and World Series are both months away, the event I'm referring to is the World Cup of Soccer, watched by an estimated 3.5 billion people around the world, including millions in the United States, almost all of whom are apparently liberals.
As a movement conservative and rabid fan of the beautiful game (that's soccer, by the way), I find myself as something of a de facto missionary for the sport to the political and cultural right. What is it about soccer that makes it (in America) the nearly exclusive domain of liberal sports fans?
Growing up in Ohio, I started following the game at age 12 via the weekly PBS program (should have tipped me off right then) Soccer Made in Germany, which featured a condensed match segment accompanied by English commentary. Youth leagues were just getting started in our part of the state, and my interest grew as I started coaching kids and playing in high school, but even then it was made clear that I was involved in an outsiders' game in a conservative area.
When I took an announcement of a big victory to my high-school principal one morning, I was greeted with a dismissive glare it's not a real sport, after all. When my coach, the parish priest in a mostly Catholic town (and thus the only person for whom it was acceptable to be a fan) threw a party to view the 1982 World Cup championship match, only three players showed up. Once, before an afternoon match, my mom informed me that if I didn't cut the grass beforehand, I couldn't go to my own game. Does the high-school quarterback have to mow the lawn before his games?
As I became a more avid follower of the game during the '90s, I started wondering why all the soccer fans I was meeting were political and cultural liberals. I had moved to Washington, D.C. in 1994 to work for a member of Congress, and even the fans from the midwest, south, and west I was coming across via the vast and intricate underground soccer network (it exists, trust me) tended to be liberals. With conventional media coverage of soccer not abundant in America, soccer fans turn to the Internet for information. But a casual survey on the preeminent web gathering place for American fanatics bigsoccer.com again demonstrates an overwhelming presence of liberals among the rank and file. If I deign, on the other hand, to ask a fellow conservative about the game, I am treated to the usual pejorative responses.
For the uninitiated (those of you who don't persecute soccer, but just tolerate those who persecute it), such responses include "Soccer is not a real sport"; "Soccer is for girls"; "Soccer is a Commie game"; "Soccer is boring"; and the most damning of all, "So you watch soccer ?"
It is fair to note that soccer has had very mixed reviews from the American public in general, not just from conservatives. While the sport as a national youth activity has grown by leaps and bounds (an estimated eight million children are playing this year), the professional game has struggled to catch on. The U.S. went for almost 15 years without a top-flight professional league, and only time will tell if major-league soccer, the well organized and energetic effort to establish such a league here, will become an American institution. Soccer's TV ratings in the U.S. are low. While the women's national team attracted a lot of attention when they won the Women's World Cup in 1999, fan interest in that appears to have been quite specific to that event, much as it was for the Men's World Cup held here in 1994.
The main drawback to soccer for "traditional Americans" is that it is a game requiring some patience to appreciate. Baseball, the thinking man's game, has been affected by this national attention-span deficit to some degree, and traditionalists bemoan how the channel-surfing highlight culture has hurt the game. Turn on a soccer match and you are not likely to see something spectacular immediately (it's kind of like a Rembrandt in that way). While the seasoned fan can recognize the difficulty and artistry of a lengthy and complex buildup to an attempt at goal often unsuccessful much of modern-day, sports-viewing America wants feverish action, and wants it now.
There is, of course, huge interest in the game among many of our immigrant communities. Fans follow their homeland teams via satellite and cable telecasts of matches from abroad. In some cities, thousands of fans will gather at a theatre or recreational center to watch a closed-circuit pay-per-view match from South America, Africa, or Asia. Go as an American to a viewing place with a predominantly foreign clientele and you will still draw looks of surprise that a "Yank" or "gringo" would be interested in "their" game.
This perhaps touches near the heart of the issue for a lot of conservatives. Americans have typically come up with their own games to dominate. We invented football (even taking "soccer's" proper name and redefining it to an almost Orwellian degree), basketball, and baseball and made those our major sports. To the degree that these are played and/or followed elsewhere, they are American exports. While baseball is popular in Japan and parts of Latin America, and basketball in Europe and Australia, they are still "American" games first and foremost. Soccer will never be that. In fact, American football in part began, as legend has it, when a game of "soccer" became too boring, prompting a player to pick up the ball and begin running with it, and the rest is gridiron "pointyball" history.
Golf and tennis are also "foreign" in their origins, but they are not linked as closely to their international roots as soccer, and at any rate already had made deep inroads in the American cultural establishment by the early 20th century.
While eschewing anything deemed international or, worse, "European" suits the isolationist streak among certain conservatives, it seems to me that a much more proper Ameri-centric response would be to embrace the game for the purpose of demonstrating American superiority through it. For instance, doesn't saying "We play the best football in the world" kind of have a hollow ring to it? I mean, who else is there? But if the U.S. were to produce professional soccer leagues that rivaled those in Italy, Spain, England and Germany, and a national team that could defeat the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and France, how much crow would the internationalists have to eat then?
To be honest, my attraction to soccer is just that I like the game. But if the lure of American superiority is enough to get you interested in the game (kind of like when Americans get interested in things like bobsledding and Greco-Roman wrestling during the Olympics), so be it.
The time is ripe. Following the explosion of youth leagues, the quality of the American player development system has improved exponentially. We are even making some inroads on the rosters of clubs in England, France, Germany, and Holland. If American conservatives dedicate themselves to backing American soccer, the resultant energy and optimistic buzz might just push the U.S. men's national team to the final rounds of this summer's World Cup, or at least lower the percentage of the fans sitting next to me who voted for Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore. Help a brother out already! Strike a blow for federalism, apple pie, and the gold standard, and make a commitment to watch the World Cup this June.
By the way, the matches, played in South Korea and Japan, are airing live at 2:30 a.m., 5 a.m., and 7:30 a.m. EST. Happy viewing.
Robert Ziegler lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and children, and directs media relations for a nonprofit public-policy group.