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The Death of the American Soccer Troll

The World Cup has had riveting games and fascinating story lines. But something is missing this time around.

A soccer ball in the shape of a Twitter egg Ringer illustration

My favorite media story of the World Cup is happening in Brian Phillips’s Twitter feed. Every few days, a certain kind of fan tells Phillips, one of the best soccer writers on the planet, that he shouldn’t use the word “soccer.” He should use “football.” There’s a name for this sort of pest: the soccer snob.

But whenever I see another snob taking a dive, I wonder what happened to their counterpart: the American soccer troll. You know, the person who showed up during every World Cup to declare that soccer (they’d never call it “football”) sucked; that the sport was deeply and fatally un-American; that the U.S. soccer boom was a mass illusion schemed up by a few guys in Brooklyn. In 2018, the American soccer troll has more or less vanished. They’re sitting out the World Cup as surely as the U.S. men’s national team.

This is kind of a big deal. Because while soccer trolls might seem as anachronistic as baseball columnists who swear they’ll never read Moneyball, they are a big part of the recent history of American sportswriting. What Franklin Foer once dubbed the “anti-soccer lobby” counted members like Frank Deford, Chuck Klosterman, Jim Rome, Dan Shaughnessy, and Allen Barra, among many others.

Every four years, soccer skeptics formed a pickup squad to cast gloom on the World Cup. In recent years, the team started to look a little ragged. In 2010, one of the loudest voices railing against soccer belonged to Glenn Beck. (“I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat.”) Four years later—when nearly 25 million Americans tuned in to see the U.S.’s draw with Portugal—the anti-soccer side included Shaughnessy, NFL writer Pete Prisco, and Ann Coulter.

Anti-soccer arguments are easy to make, because they have all been made before. The words just have to be rearranged, slightly. For instance, a lot of soccer haters argue that a real sport would allow you to use your hands. Deford remarked: “I don’t care how good you are with your feet. God gave us these [hands] to separate us from the beasts of the fields.” Shaughnessy wrote: “Hands and opposable thumbs separate us from creatures of the wild.” Coulter wrote: “You can’t use your hands in soccer. … What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs.”

Well, the American soccer fan responded, millions of kids do play the game. Aha! The troll was ready for that one. Deford: “Soccer kids can’t wait for soccer moms to pick them up at practice so they can go home and watch true-blue ’Mercan games.” Barra: “Soccer is played by hundreds of thousands of American kids without the slightest enthusiasm—kids who can’t wait to bolt and get home to their skateboards and video games.”

Soccer was said to be incredibly boring (“bland and monotonous,” Barra wrote) and also surrounded by murderous hooligans (the “Official Sport of Terrorism,” National Review declared). Playing through this apparent contradiction, Rome said: “The entire sport is predicated on guys hitting the deck and crying at the smallest hint of contact and coaches punching referees in the face and urine and blood bombs and riots.”

The bodies of soccer players also came under the troll’s leering gaze. The fact the sport privileged regular-sized athletes seemed to give the rest of the world an advantage over the U.S. it never had in the Summer Olympics. “It eliminates the swiftest and the most powerful and takes for its physical standard the average European male,” Barra sniffed.

Like the trolling of advanced stats, anti-soccerism sought to reclaim something that was unfashionably primal and American. “To say you love soccer is to say you believe in enforced equality more than you believe in the value of competition and the capacity of the human spirit,” Klosterman wrote in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. “Every time I pull up behind a Ford Aerostar with a ‘#1 Soccer Mom’ bumper sticker, I feel like I’m marching in the wake of the Khmer Rouge.”

Klosterman isn’t a nativist. But some American soccer trolls at least flirted with the idea. It was almost illegal to write a column about soccer that didn’t compare it to the metric system. “What really upsets our critics is that the most popular sports in America—football, baseball and basketball—originated here in the Land of the Free,” the Washington Times editorial board noted.

The late San Francisco sports columnist Wells Twombly had the best rejoinder to soccer’s alleged un-Americanism: “Soccer is generally considered to be a foreign plot designed to sublimate one of our great native games such as armored rugby or modified rounders.”

Interestingly, soccer trolls reserved their greatest scorn for the sport’s fans. Soccer fans were—pick an adjective—wimpy, smug, elitist, intolerant, globalist, socialist. “The same people trying to push soccer on Americans are the ones demanding that we love HBO’s Girls, light-rail, Beyoncé, and Hillary Clinton,” Coulter wrote.

Knee-slappers like that should be appearing in print again this summer. But you have to look pretty hard to find them. Prisco fired off a few tweets. National Review made a final, staggering trip through the buffet line. Otherwise, the soccer troll is mostly sitting this one out. What gives?

The first reason the American soccer troll disappeared is that the U.S. men’s team didn’t make the World Cup. That put the idea that arouses the soccer troll—that soccer is “the sport of the future”—at least temporarily on ice. Plus, if you’re looking to pick fights about which sports are un-American, there are better ones to be had. Look at “the NFL is better than the NBA” war that erupted after the Warriors signed Boogie Cousins.

The soccer troll’s decline can also be chalked up to soccer’s success. In 2003, when Klosterman declared, “We will never care about soccer in this country,” the idea didn’t seem ridiculous. While soccer has hardly displaced football or baseball, it has gotten big enough that a lot of skeptics have dropped the bit, or else offer it apologetically. In 2014, Shaughnessy began his column by conceding soccer’s many virtues: “It’s a sport that represents democracy and meritocracy. It’s the perfect game for children. The big kids don’t dominate.” These are the exact same qualities the trolls used to attack.

Something amazing happened to a few soccer haters: They underwent an ecstatic, quasi-religious conversion. In 2002, Barra was raging against “soccer nerds and bullies” in The Village Voice. In 2011, he was moved to tears by the U.S. women’s team’s loss in the World Cup final. Allen, welcome to the resistance.

In the intervening years, the soccer troll’s medium also changed. American sportswriting, like any form of writing, has distinct artistic periods. A decade or two ago, anti-soccer columns dripped with a shtick we might call comic nativism. (You could see it in Olympics stories, too.) The writer didn’t really hate the people of Italy or Colombia or Iran. They were just happy to wring the nations for a few laughs.

While those bits still play on sports radio, you rarely see them in mainstream sportswriting anymore. Case in point: Before Shaughnessy started pummeling soccer, he made clear that he and his family have taken in many exchange students over the years.

Finally, for a handful of American soccer trolls, nativism wasn’t a shtick. It was a political platform. The right’s embrace of soccer-trolling dates back to at least 1986, when Jack Kemp compared “European socialist” soccer with American football on the floor of the House. “If more ‘Americans’ are watching soccer today, it’s only because of the demographic switch effected by Teddy Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law,” Ann Coulter wrote four years ago. “I promise you: No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

This summer, it’d be awfully strange for Coulter to use soccer to score points on immigration policy when she could just write about … immigration policy. By becoming a magnet for so many “America first” takes, President Donald Trump has become the sport’s accidental savior. Why would a nativist bother with soccer when their champion striker is already in the White House?