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How Soccer Lost America (Then Got It Back)

It took several decades, but Americans eventually lowered their defenses and welcomed the world’s game

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the latest installment of its HBO Music Box series, Listening to Kenny G. Before that film reexamines the impact of the renowned saxophonist, The Ringer will spend this week revisiting other cultural figures, concepts, and even sports, that are likewise in need of a reevaluation.

A strange feature of American exceptionalism during the 1980s and ’90s was that we wanted to import everything but culture. This is one way to understand the bizarre anxiety and contempt with which much of the American sports media regarded soccer in the late 20th century: It was the wrong kind of product. Our cars, our clothes, and our kitchen mixers could be made in other countries—and they were; the U.S. trade deficit increased almost 20-fold over this span, from a shade over $19 billion in 1980 to a shade under $370 billion in 2000. But our movies? Our music? Our sports? Try to explain BTS to a cool American teen in 1994 and they’d have looked at you like you’d hurled a flowerpot at them. Music could come from the U.K. or Ireland, occasionally; we weren’t xenophobes. Tiny, culty cliques of us might watch the odd British comedy or Swedish art film on VHS, if we could get it (mostly we couldn’t). Beyond that, though? Thank you, Pierre, but no. American men in Bangladesh-made khakis could, without a whisper of cognitive dissonance, drive their German cars while listening to their Chinese-engineered radio consoles, where they’d spend drivetime deriding soccer as a foreign menace, a cosmopolitan threat to American strength—a “game for beret-wearers,” as Ann Coulter once put it.

That’s one way to think about the (now mostly bygone, thank goodness) American scorn for the world’s most popular game. Another way is to reverse the equation. Culture, during those years, was what we wanted to export. The invisible foreigners who populated the shelves of our Kmarts with running shoes and waffle irons were supposed to love, and purchase, American cultural products. And often they did! Look at the international box office, which exploded during the late 20th century. The top film of 1980, The Empire Strikes Back, made 54 percent of its gross from the domestic market; the top film of 1997, Titanic, earned almost 70 percent of its gross from the international market. In 1997, for the first time, Hollywood earned more money outside the United States than inside it. Call it cultural imperialism if you want; the sun never set on our vibe. We were winning the Cold War, buying cheap CD players, and spreading Forrest Gump (international box office share: 51 percent) around the world.

Spreading it, that is, except for the football scenes. Sports were the great omission from America’s sphere of cultural influence. These days, with the NBA returning to state TV in China, with David Beckham running a soccer club in Miami from courtside seats in L.A., it can be hard to remember how utterly sequestered American sports used to be from the rest of the world. The astonishing popularity of soccer across much of the world meant that our sports struggled to attract attention beyond our own borders. People who could name the cast of Friends could not name a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Everyone, everywhere knew who Michael Jordan was, but in the same way that everyone in Ohio knew Pelé in 1977: mostly not from watching his games. America set the world’s agenda in music, in film, in fashion, but it did not set the agenda in big-time professional sports. Soccer was too big. It wouldn’t budge for us.

In a real sense, then, world football was the place where America encountered the horizon of its own influence. It is unsettling, if you are the king, to see the mountain where your kingdom ends; I think that’s how soccer felt to many Americans. Past this line you do not call the shots. Maybe you’ve noticed that nationalism has a way of translating masculine insecurity into aggression; maybe you’ve noticed that sports tends to be the venue where masculine insecurity goes to protect and reassure itself. For a certain type of American man—say, the type who would very much like to get the attention of a roomful of eighth-grade boys by barking “All right, girls, listen up”; the type that drove almost all sports coverage before the internet, and still drives maybe two-thirds of it—it became necessary to define soccer as a contemptible other. Soccer had to be not just un-American, but un-American in ways that revealed the inherent superiority of American-ness, the untrustworthiness and effeminacy and shiftless, beret-wearing, welfare-state prissiness of the rest of the world.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate what a bizzaro-town reading of the sport this was at a time when soccer hooligans were sucking out each other’s eyeballs, right-wing populist groups were actively recruiting at English soccer grounds, bougie middle-class Europeans wanted nothing to do with a game they saw as violent and déclassé, piss-filled balloons routinely splashed down on traveling supporters, and Roy Keane existed. For that matter, soccer had once actually been a pretty popular sport in America—bigger than the NFL in the 1920s, though nowhere near as big as college football—and millions of American kids were playing it every weekend. But the accuracy, historicity, and consistency of the reading mattered less than how it made Joe Colts Fan feel. It made him feel good! And thus, for many, many years, soccer in the United States became the subject of one of the most comprehensive cultural misunderstandings since the first Christian in Rome turned to the guy next to him and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see the inside of the Colosseum.”

Do you remember this era? It wasn’t that long ago. I guess it ended around 2006, though for a long time after that, and even to this day, tendrils of anti-soccer sentiment would sometimes unfurl in the more goateed corners of the discourse. At some point, those millions of soccer-playing kids started to grow up, MLS convinced people it wasn’t going away, Fever Pitch made it safe for rich people to like Arsenal, and improved communication technology made it easier to watch international games. The sport started to seem young and cool rather than alien and crypto-socialist. (Socialism also started to seem young and cool.) It became possible to support both the troops and Manchester United. The world turned, and if your boomer relatives continued to complain about Neymar, you could take it in stride, knowing that millions of hardcore soccer fans, on multiple continents, were complaining about Neymar at all times.

Things got better. But before then? Oh my God, the nonsense we endured. I speak as a fan; also as someone who used to go to an auto-repair place that played Jim Rome in the waiting room. They were good, honest mechanics and, I believe, had simply lost the remote. Anyway, it was carnage. Every sports columnist in America used to wake up twice a year and phone in a lazy, pandering anti-soccer rant, the main takeaway of which was always “I love leaving work at 2:30.” Probably the most perceptive, and therefore dumbest, of these was written by the revered Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, in 2001. Deford notes—perceptively!—that soccer’s trouble in America has something to do with the reluctance of Americans to import culture. But rather than thinking through the causes of that close-mindedness, Deford celebrates it: “What we Americans do is pass along our stuff to other, impressionable peoples.” Cool sentence. Americans like scoring, he writes, and therefore:

The reason that we don’t care about soccer is that it is un-American. It’s somebody else’s way of life. So most American kids abandon interest in the game when they realize it’s not consistent with what they are finding out about Americanism. The same with immigrants and their children—as soon as they discover more appealing games that reflect American spirit, American values. It’s really very simple why most of us nonsocialistic Americans will forever reject soccer.

Please imagine reading a version of this every three months for 20 years; you now have an inkling of what it used to be like to be American and suspect that the most intensely beloved game on the planet might be—you know—good.

It gets worse. Here is a line that the Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy—who wrote and rewrote the same anti-soccer column for 25 years—published, on purpose, in 1994, the year the U.S. hosted the World Cup:

How good can any game be when you can’t use your hands? Hands are what separate us from the animal kingdom.

Hands. Are what separate us. From the animal kingdom. I cannot tell you how many writers made this argument during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years. Thousands. Friends, I implore you. Here is a game that several billion people think is fun and exciting. Do not be tempted to learn about it. Respect the essential difference between yourself and a giraffe.

Here’s the sportswriter Allen Barra in 2002:

To [soccer nerds], soccer is “democratic” because it eliminates the swiftest and the most powerful and takes for its physical standard the average European male. In other words, the average soccer nerd’s own height and weight.

This is correct. I enjoy soccer because it takes for its physical standard the average European male. There were various physical standards it could have taken—swifter, more powerful ones—but it took a 5-foot-9 Latvian beachgoer named Ivo. I met him once at FIFA headquarters. He was a little cold in his Speedo, but we had a nice chat about how we’re exactly the same height and weight.

Anyway, Allen Barra likes soccer now.

Here’s the pundit Jim Rome, in 17,000 BC:

My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball.

Jim Rome also likes soccer now.

Here’s Hank Hill:

Some of these rants, to be fair to their writers, belong to a tradition of semi-shtick, what my colleague Bryan Curtis, in a 2018 column about the disappearance of the American soccer troll, called “comic nativism.” Some of them do not belong to any comic tradition, at least not on purpose, and are meant to be taken seriously. It’s easy to tell the difference; the serious ones are much funnier. In any case, this steady drip of transferred angst about American manhood and American national prestige and (uh) American hand-having defined the popular conception of the sport for years. A big part of the national sports media looked at soccer fans like: Oh, here’s a thing you enjoy; I am going to yell “freedom fries” at the top of my lungs while you watch it.

Soccer still isn’t massively popular in America. What’s changed is something subtler: It now seems more embarrassing to say this stuff than to be attacked by the people who say it. I mean, most little boys would probably love a pair of ice skates and a sequined blouse? I’m sure that fact still makes a lot of dads nervous, but more and more people can see that it’s not their sons they’re nervous for. The idea of a game embodying or undermining fundamental American values seems faintly ridiculous in the era of Shohei Ohtani in California and Christian Pulisic at Stamford Bridge. And in an era when the 2020 Best Picture winner and half the biggest shows on Netflix come from abroad, loudly refusing to engage with the world is no longer quite the rhetorical slam dunk it once was.

I still sometimes think that soccer in America could use a cultural reassessment. Have we totally figured out our approach to fandom—one that’s not copy-pasting from the Premier League or the NFL? Have we figured out how to balance our interest in building the domestic game with our interest in watching the best players and teams in the world, or worked out how both those interests relate to the future of our national teams? Not completely, I think. Still, it’s infinitely better than it used to be. I watch soccer every weekend, and they let me type this column with my hands.