While the Bush administration is doing its best to keep the United States apart from the world, 11 Americans running indomitably across a green field have brought us proudly into it.
Last night, the U.S. soccer team was beaten by Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. But that defeat was one of the most honorable events in the history of American sports. For it marked the decisive and undeniable debut of the United States as a serious contender in the one sport played in every single country across the globe, the world’s most passionately followed pastime: soccer.
This is a momentous event. It would have been more momentous, of course, if the U.S. had gone on to win the championship — and not in a good way. A U.S. World Cup championship would have posed a far more ominous threat to national security than a dozen al-Qaidas. A British journalist friend of mine warned me before the Germany match: “Personally I wish the U.S. well too — though as a friend I feel obliged to tell you what I’m sure you already know, that if USA wins outright it will mean Americans can’t travel safely anywhere except possibly London and Dublin.” For fans in Buenos Aires and Paris and Berlin and Sao Paulo, already chafing under a Sisyphean load of Britney CDs and Rumsfeld declarations in the Pax Americana, the prospect of the Big Bully triumphing in a sport it doesn’t even give a damn about would be intolerable. The untrammelled rage of 2 billion nationalistic, testosterone-spewing males, directed at Uncle Sam? Osama bin Laden is a kindly, retired Sunday school teacher by comparison.
But we didn’t win, and by the time we do, the rest of the world will have had time to get used to the idea. The way we carry ourselves, the way we understand what just happened here, matters, too. If we are wise, we will greet our ascension as serious competitors onto the biggest sports stage in the world not with chest-thumping patriotism but with a kind of joyous humility. The significance of the U.S. team’s remarkable achievement — we played the mighty Germans straight up, a finer performance than we gave in any of our victories — isn’t that “We’re No. 1!” or even “We’re No. 6!” The rest of the world has had far too much of that boasting, and it must be growing old for even the most rabid flag-waver. No, it’s about finally joining the global brotherhood of athletes on equal terms — no better, no worse.
The beauty of the World Cup is that theoretically — and, to a greater degree than in any other sport, also in practice — any country, no matter how tiny, impoverished or geopolitically insignificant, can beat any other country. China may have more people, the U.S. may have more money, Brazil may have the proudest tradition — no matter. Little Cameroon can smoke ‘em all. (This year, Senegal could take the prize.) Uruguay, best known for being the place where the German pocket battleship Graf Spee was cornered and sunk in World War II, has won two World Cups, for God’s sake. Forget your GNP — all that matters is what your 11 ordinary-sized men can do with a ball on a field against my 11 ordinary-sized men. The line starts over there — Tunisia and Italy and Russia and Ireland and Israel and Morocco and Jamaica and Turkey and Japan and Kazakhstan. And America, too. No cutting in.
There is something satisfying and oddly species-affirming in watching the athletes of the world all playing the same game. That’s one of the joys of the Olympics, and it’s one of the joys of the World Cup. Soccer is the simplest game in the world: It involves extraordinary skill in controlling, dribbling and passing the ball, but there’s one thing that holds it together, the most basic thing in all of sports: running. Soccer is the running game. You run fast, then you run all-out, then you lope, then you stride, then you run fast, then you trot, and you do this for 90 minutes, and not once is a run ever exactly like any other run.
So when Landon Donovan breaks out, streaking down the left sideline, it’s all the runners in America going against all the runners in the world, it’s Jerry Rice running a slant against a 170-pound cornerback from Belgium and Rickey Henderson taking off for third against a guy from South Africa.
And it’s your kids against our kids, your long summer afternoons against ours. In the rest of the world, soccer is what you do — period. I’ve watched guys playing soccer on the beach in Jamaica, Brazil, Indonesia, Italy, England, Mexico, with the speed and Gale Sayers moves and Dr. J virtuosity you see in a hot game of city hoops or a serious pickup football game. It’s the global yardstick of athleticism. In the U.S. we play different sports — which makes measuring ourselves against the world’s standard even more satisfying.
One of these days, we’re going to win the World Cup. When that day arrives, the rest of the world will no doubt be outraged. Too bad. We will have paid our dues. We will have earned the right to hold that trophy aloft and exult like everyone else. And as our athletes hold that trophy up, if we have learned anything from the World Cup we will celebrate not our God-given superiority as Americans who have now extended our sports hegemony into the last enemy redoubt, but something very different: our ordinariness. We will celebrate the way the sport cut us down to size. We will celebrate the way it took away our advantages — our money, our facilities, our college gladiator-training factories — leaving us face to face with our competitors. We will celebrate the sheer dazzling equality of this sport, and our membership in the community of nations, and our humanity.
And somewhere inside we will remember where it all started and all it will ever mean: a boy running along a beach, kicking a ball forward, running on ahead, kicking a ball, until he vanishes out of sight.
Thanks for letting us play, world. We’ll see you in four years.