Everyone seems to be gushing about the U.S. Men’s World Cup soccer team. Fans are jumping and hugging in streets and bars across the country. Men are actually admitting to shedding tears. And commentators keep talking about what the last-gasp victory over Algeria says about the “national character.”
“These were Americans doing something recognizable,” wrote New York Times soccer columnist George Vecsey, linking the goalscorer, Landon Donovan, and his teammates with iconic athletes Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter, “something Americans have seen before.”
“American athletes would never give up,” was the lesson Vecsey drew from the match.
Vecsey and others have likewise read the victory, and the team, as symbols of an idyllic melting pot nation. One blogger, who calls himself the “renegade sportsman,” was particularly effusive:
Call it, perhaps, a protean, republican spirit of inclusion through merit. The pile-up on Donovan after his goal involved Hispanic dudes, white dudes, black dudes—even a Scottish dude. It was a fleshy amalgamation produced by a country that has always been polyglot and multihued.
And then there are the oft-quoted, hazily poetic words of U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (whom I happen to like and hope gets to play more), who is suddenly being compared to Whitman, Dickinson, and Louis Armstrong: “We bring something to the table, the American people as a whole.”
Understandable words from a member of a team that has rarely been taken seriously by the international soccer world. But as exegesis on a nation (that is so often, and so tellingly, mistaken for a hemisphere)? (Then again, I’m sure many Iraqis and Afghans would agree that U.S. Americans bring something to the table.)
The U.S. team is not an allegory for the nation. The team and its victory are not signs of some unique “American character” that we have and that no one else possesses. They are not symbols of an inclusive, meritocratic melting pot nation (which has somehow, magically erased its history of slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion, as well as its present day reality of ongoing racism, war, impoverishment, and inequality).
The team is just that. A team of 23 men and their coaches and trainers who have, despite some nervous moments, done rather well in the first round of the world’s largest sporting event-cum-platform for nationalist dreaming and global capitalism.
The rest is pure mythmaking and nationalist dribble (pardon the pun).
Indeed the World Cup, by its very modus operandi of pitting teams said to represent nations against one another, encourages such mythmaking and nationalist hyperbole. I get caught up in the emotion of the World Cup as much, if not more, than the average “American.” But when the crowd at the stadium, at the bar, in the streets starts chanting “USA! USA! USA!” maybe we should think twice about the seemingly instinctive, but very much conditioned, nationalist ritual we’re participating in.
Maybe at such a moment it might be worth thinking about those like the distraught Algerian goalie, Rais M’Bolhi, who conceded Donovan’s goal, after bravely turning aside everything that had come his way? Who couldn’t feel terrible for him? Was the goal some sign of the Algerian national character?
Before a difficult match against Ghana (and, if the U.S. team is lucky, other difficult match(es) ahead), perhaps it’s worth considering, in a game that inevitably entail wins and losses, why it is that we only see our victories—and never our defeats—as a sign of our national character?