It is odd to stand tall as an American during the World Cup, when in other contexts I am not particularly proud of my Passport.
The World Cup is inherently a nationalistic endeavor. For a country that has been bad at the sport in question for most of the sport’s existence, and has most of the world somewhere between casually disgusted to fully at war against it, I am fully aware of the dry irony and awkwardness of a pub full of Americans chanting U-S-A, during a football match until we’re hoarse.
In the US, footie is a fringe sport, perhaps best described as the hipster pro sport of the moment (we’re skipping organized dodgeball, bike polo and roller derby). For every MLS owner who desperately wants the Soccer Moms in the stands, crowds of European and South American inspired Ultras (myself included) grow in the cheap seats of small stadia around America. These fans, for the most part, set themselves in the AntiFa mold, rejecting the blind nationalism and fascism of other right wing supporters cultures, so when the World Cup comes around, the biggest fans get overtaken by a bit of blind patriotism that usually swells during unjust wars or the Olympics. Maybe it is a bit shocking for a casual observer, but it always goes in the same cycle: Sports Radio says stupid things, because they’re paid to be provocative and they’re struggling to contextualize something they don’t (or don’t care to) understand, then people over-react. Footie is footie, it’s not best compared to armed conflict. There are enough idiots in Pointyball to make this mistake.
What mitigates my quivering conscience about the relationship between my patriotic footie fandom and the scary concept of patriotism itself, is that being a fan of the USMNT is a lesson in humility. We’re a small football country. America loves beating the rest of the world in the sports we invented, but in footie, we’re on par with Slovenia (population 2 million), and apparently not as good as Ghana (2/27ths the size of America), as they’ve proved in two successive World Cups. We lose, often. We aim for reasonable goals, like making the World Cup every cycle, making it out of the group stage, competing with the best teams in the world as best we can.
America walks through politics, sports, and nearly everything with hubris that we may not have earned or deserve. We’re a cocky nation. In Footie, we’re struggling from the bottom up, just like everyone else; when I root for the US Men’s National Team as hard as I can, I’m rooting for a group of athletes to do the best they can, to succeed where they haven’t before. That makes me feel like a world citizen more than anything else.
“It was a great game. You know, all great contests become head games at some point — sports, elections, wars. And they (Team USA) have good heads and good hearts.”
— Bill Clinton, after the Slovenia game, via TOW