Soccer Isn’t An Un-American Sport. Football Is.

Stan Veuger Resident Scholar, AEI
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Yesterday, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, the U.S. faced off against Portugal in its second 2014 FIFA World Cup game. A dramatic injury time equalizer by Portuguese forward Silvestre Varela led to a final score of 2-2, which leaves the U.S. with four points after beating Ghana’s Black Stars last week. This unfortunate last-minute set-back keeps the U.S. from qualifying for the knock-out stage for now, but puts it in a reasonably good position to do so in its third and last group game on Thursday against Germany. TV ratings in the United States are higher than ever, media attention for the tournament is through the roof, and against all odds America may just make it out of the Group of Death to the round of 16: what’s not to like?

Weirdly enough, there are some who cling to absurd notions of soccer-related discontent no matter what. Their voices are particularly well represented within the conservative movement. My AEI colleague Marc Thiessen, for example, believes that soccer is a socialist sport, and so does C. Edmund Wright, writing for the American Thinker. Others believe that soccer is un-American, or even that it is a sport for terrorists. All of these views are wrong.

They are also silly, and the silliest of all is the view that soccer is the “sport of terrorism.” This view, espoused by Tim Cavanaugh over at National Review Online, is based on two observations: that hooliganism is a common phenomenon around soccer games, and that violent demonstrations have surrounded the current World Cup in Brazil. These observations are correct, but linking them to terrorism is dangerous.

Hooliganism is a simple law enforcement problem, not one that requires the kind of extraordinary measures necessary in the War on Terror. Conflating the two is a sign of the pre-9/11 mindset that cost us dearly in the past. Meanwhile, most of the protests in Brazil have been driven by legitimate grievances about extreme poverty, inequality, and government dysfunction. I wonder if Mr. Cavanaugh truly believes that the beheadings and mass murder of civilians that we have witnessed over the past months in Iraq and Syria are a legitimate expression of ISIL’s grievances. I hope not, but one thing is clear: this line of attack on soccer is not a helpful one.

Let us then proceed to the more common accusations of socialism and un-Americanism. I have demonstrated before that soccer is certainly not a socialist sport when it comes to its industrial organization: unlike the NFL, it is not a cesspit of bailouts, revenue sharing, or affirmative action for underperformers. Yet some of the critics of soccer base their attacks – my apologies for the awkward phrasing, for these attacks are baseless – on features of the sport itself, not on its off-field organization. They are misguided as well, for it is soccer, not football, that celebrates freedom, creativity, and the ability of the individual to shape his own future in practically every game.

Think, first of all, of soccer’s basic organization. The coach gives his eleven players loose instructions as to where to stand; they only report back after having engaged in a process of discovery of their opponents’ weaknesses for 45 minutes. Contrast this with the highly centralized, micro-managed tactics of football: players are left without a sense of agency and instead rely upon the detailed guidelines of their strictly hierarchically organized coaching structures for their second-to-second decision-making. The members of these NFL Politburos in turn base their guidelines on statistics in a way that sends thrills up the legs of technocrats everywhere. Soccer, in contrast, produces the kind of beautiful spontaneous order that is the natural product of human action.

A second crucial difference between football and soccer is the contrast between the role of the individual in both sports. In soccer, one goal, one red card, one penalty kick can make the difference between glory and failure. Johan Cruijff in 1974, Diego Maradona in 1986, and, hopefully, Robin van Persie this year are all players who regularly carry their team to victory based on a flash of personal brilliance. This outsized role of the individual – of course, if hundreds of pitches are thrown in a game a single will matter much less – is directly reflected in players’ compensation.

Of the 17 NFL players on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes in the world, only four made more than $2 million from endorsements last year; every single soccer player on the list hit that mark, and most of them cleared the bar quite comfortably. Which makes sense: it is individual excellence and charisma that endow one with star power, not being reliably malleable for the superstructure.

That said, in a striking manifestation of balance, soccer does not go overboard the way golf, tennis and basketball do. While the individual is important, and his contributions can be crucial, his impulses are often restrained by the greater good of his team’s chances. Passing the ball may well be the wiser choice than going for the hard finish yourself; after all, players are seen as truly great when they bring their club or country memorable victories. In that sense soccer delivers on the promise of the original political arguments for capitalism before its triumph as traced out by Albert Hirschman: the individual player’s passions are moderated by his long-term interests in a way that contributes to his team’s success.

On the topic of his team’s success: it is never guaranteed, and this seems to worry those who believe that soccer is un-American. They misunderstand the issue in two subtly different ways. For one, they believe that unpredictability is intrinsically unfair, and that it runs counter to the American character, because “the best team should win.”

To them I say: who are you to predict? If you believe that perfect information can be collected centrally, why did the Soviet system fail? Have we learned nothing of Hayek’s teachings on how information is acquired in society?

Then again, it may not be a lack of information that plagues them. They may just be misinterpreting the information they have and mistake, say, possession for dominance. What I see in many such cases is a struggle between different approaches to the game, where one team focuses on endless possession while its opponent hopes for successful counterattacks. Diametrically different strategies that show us that soccer is truly a sport that is ex pluribus unum, where teams from diverse schools of tactical thought all get to pursue happiness. Isn’t that lovely?

Lastly, let me address the most common line of criticism directed at soccer: there aren’t enough goals, and scores are too low, and somehow that’s socialist. Well, there aren’t very many paintings by Rembrandt, and that is part of what makes us value them. Would you swap the Mona Lisa for twenty drawings by a 5-year-old?

And yes, the scores that result from a soccer game are typically low. That’s what you get you get when don’t assign 7 points for a goal, like it’s a touchdown or a Chinese government statistic.

In a non-socialist, deeply American, anti-terrorist sport like soccer, low scores are a fair price to pay for decency and freedom.