Holding the Center


January friendlies are pretty low on the soccer totem pole anyway, but it’s hard to imagine a match feeling less important than Sunday’s USMNT/Serbia tune-up (we might find out in a few months when United States/Panama gets played under a mushroom cloud, but I digress). Where Bruce Arena experiments with playing Darlington Nagbe just can’t hold up, priority-wise, when American democracy seems to be melting away, after all.

The two realms of course ran face-first into each other, though, after Michael Bradley’s interview/post-interview comments on this weekend’s executive order, in which he tepidly dodges then dives head-first into the matter:

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Bradley himself says he wasn’t expecting the spotlight, at least not this spotlight, which, fine, but it makes sense for the captain of the U.S. National team to have some opinion on the thing plunging his nation into chaos, right?

Which begs a question: what do we expect our national teams to be? Can we reasonably expect a national team to in some way reflect something about the nation they represent, other than the fact the players happen to hold passports? Totally, right? Certainly, national teams play with variations of style based on national tradition (the Brazilians play this way, the Dutch that way, etc. etc.), but I wonder if that’s actually reflective of a national identity, or an ad hoc construction to fit vague concepts of nationhood. I’m partial to both Sam Fayyaz’s examination of style as national ideology, as well as Jan Kotowski’s discussion of a “style of play-national identity-nexus”, not as as arguments to pick apart, but just two examples in a sea of think pieces and articles tangling with ideas of nationalism and soccer.

I’m curious, however, how conceptions of nationhood vis-á-vis soccer are transmuted or otherwise played out away from the pitch. Perhaps this is a fundamentally different question for the United States, a nation with a soccer history, sure, but one essentially different from European and South American soccer histories, and really, Central American, African, and Asian soccer histories as well. I’m reminded of another Run of Play article, in which Conor Williams roots American soccer culture in a look at de Tocqueville:

In a certain sense, this is the fundamental wager at the heart of American life. We keep our public life segmented away from eternal questions. Those stay at home. And that’s how we get from the disenchanted world to soccer. Hyper-hyped beer commercials notwithstanding, we make the same wager with our athletic rivalries as with our politics. Sports are segmented away from eternal concerns—like ethnic identities or defining community causes—and this keeps them from getting too explosive.

This, I think, is an impulse behind angry “stick to sports” rage tweets that sprout up anytime a sports figure (particularly those in the media) comment on anything other than, you know, sports. It’s comfortable to keep these things compartmentalized, to think about sports only within its own context as a cultural activity. I don’t think I’m dipping too much of a toe into preachiness by going to the obvious point that sports don’t and can’t exist within this kind of vacuum, that society and politics and culture and all of those vague signifiers of human-ness of course impact the hows and whys of soccer specifically, but any sport generally.

Bradley’s comments throw this idea into sharp focus, and gives us a bit of cognitive dissonance. If we want our national team to have some factor of national identity, how do we respond when the captain of that team plants a flag (sure, not at first, but he did seem to realize how problematic his original lukewarm statement was and corrected course) on the hottest of hot buttons?

Perhaps then, as much as it makes the “we already have football, it’s called FOOTBALL” section cringe, the U.S. National Teams are more reflective of our current ahem, situation (existential Armageddon, bipartisan chasm of despair, whatever, insert your preferred phraseology here) than we would readily like to admit. I mean that as in Bradley, understanding his stance on a (semi) tall podium, declaring a political stance as much as I mean Tim Howard and Abby Wambach blundering their way through xenophobic remarks as much as I mean the USWNT as a pretty convincing symbol for the American woman today – under appreciated, under paid, and politically engaged. Each of these feel like three of the ideological stances attempting to shout each other into oblivion 140 characters at a time. 

An obvious point, maybe, and certainly not very daring (three Americans hold views held by millions of Americans), but maybe we’re encountering an unexpected landmark of the development of soccer in America; we’ve reached the point where our soccer players have become as important for how they function within our national discourse as for how they perform on the field.

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