I'm In Love But I'm Lazy

The US national team is part of that élite group referred to in England by their demonym rather than by the name of the country. At the last World Cup, for instance, England were shut out by Algeria after drawing against the Americans. They beat Slovenia but they lost to the Germans. It could be regarded as something of a badge of honour, like being criticised by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Last summer, an English football website published a link to footage of American fans celebrating Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria. Readers were advised to ignore the “obnoxious” chanting of “USA! USA! USA!”

Chanting the team’s name following a goal – a historic goal, in this case – is not unusual, and it’s curious that it should be considered obnoxious when Americans are doing it. Clearly that’s in part an extension of a tedious stereotype, that of the brash, overweight and stupid American. Stereotypes like that make me gnash my poorly-maintained teeth and spit out my tea with rage.

The contempt for those fans is only part of a wider distaste for the US game. Major League Soccer is seen as a retirement league. Perhaps until Clint Dempsey’s success at Fulham, US players were good despite their origin, not because of it. There’s very little discussion in England of the American style of play, or the types of player that the country produces.

Why is that? There must be more to it than lazy national stereotyping.

Immediately, the word itself springs to mind. Soccer. It’s become the symbol of America’s perceived failure to understand the sport. But the word “soccer” - and, in any case, it's of English origin - isn’t the issue here, it’s just a punchline. It’s the front of the hotel.

Is it the NASL’s fault? Those dreamlike years of Pelé and Beckenbauer sauntering in Glorious Technicolor between incongruous gridiron markings? Those were dizzyingly glamorous times for an English audience to whom the likes of Cruyff and Pelé were semi-mythical figures, looming out of the mist only every few years to win a World Cup or knock Everton out of Europe.

The seeds the NASL sowed, though, have sprouted into something pernicious and lingering: a perception that US soccer is gleamingly insincere and fundamentally superficial. Altogether less real.

Towering over the whole issue is the idea that the United States is not a football country. Obviously soccer is far from the most popular sport; rather it occupies an incrementally-growing niche. Football isn’t the most-watched sport in Ireland either, but to denigrate Irish fans of the game would rightly be seen as absurd and unfair. Other Non-Football Countries might include Japan, or the hosts of the last World Cup.

Included in the Not A Football Country package is the perceived lack of history, which is a feature of English attitudes toward America in general. It’s a misreading – America has a long history of involvement in the game, particularly in places like Seattle and Portland. Philadelphia had a hardcore of fans before the city even got a team. Admittedly the game has never been as explicitly wrapped up in national identity as it is in Europe, but the US has its rivalries and heroes, its narratives and triumphs and tragedies.

Of course there’s also an enormous amount of possessiveness tied up in this. We invented football. Not codified, not exported – invented. The game belongs to the English, and Wembley is its home. The English are very uncomfortable with the idea that football has become bigger than them, that it doesn’t need them anymore. It only takes a quick glance at FIFA to see it for yourself.

There’s a protectiveness that goes hand-in-hand with that. What with America’s hegemony in nearly every other sphere – politics, economics, popular culture – football is pretty much the only thing England has left. All the while is the uncomfortable thought that if America, with the size of its population and economy, started taking football seriously it’d be a powerhouse of the world game. As a Mexican fan said in Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy: “When the Americans [there it is again] like something, they take it over.”

It all adds up to resentment, and that manifests itself through the familiar prism of snark and disdain. Americans in general, and soccer fans in particular, are fair game in England, which is tremendously unjust.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, while the typical English person certainly knows more about the game than the average American, the average American soccer fan is considerably better informed than their English equivalent. Ask a non-football fan in each country to name every footballer they could think of, and the Brit would come out on top. Ask a football fan in each country to list the teams in Serie A, though, and the results would be rather different.

That’s nothing to do with the intelligence of either party, but the fact that every British newspaper is stuffed full of football news from on and off the field. The evening news on a Saturday will always tell you whether Manchester United won or lost. In the United States the coverage is there, but only if you look for it. It’s much more difficult to be a casual fan in the US, because you have to know which bar shows the Bundesliga instead of the NFL. For precisely that reason, the US soccer blogging landscape is sprawling and fearsomely knowledgeable. The fanbase in America is smaller but more committed, while the British fanbase is enormous but with a far lower proportion of diehards and fanatics.

Is there any chance of the perception changing? Not anytime soon, it seems. Success on the international stage certainly doesn’t change much: the US national team has taken part in more World Cups than many “football countries”, for instance Paraguay. It got as far as England in the 2010 tournament, indeed came a great deal closer to reaching the quarter-finals. But it's difficult to see a successful US team being met with anything other than resentment. Those Americans again with their insistence on being good at things.

What might have more of an impact is the slow growth of MLS. The league’s commissioner Don Garber is forever talking about growing the sport, about expanding to new markets and producing better home-grown players. And gradually the league is becoming less reliant on fading overseas superstars. Lothar Matthäus was almost forty when he went to MLS in 2000, whereas David Beckham and Thierry Henry were both thirty-one. Past their best, sure, but neither of them washed-up has-beens. Real Salt Lake notably won the 2009 title without any Designated Players (those players, like Beckham, for whom a club is permitted to break the salary cap).

It’s nothing new to say that English attitudes to football are held back by a pervasive sense of its own history. But it’s worth considering that almost every country has a football history too, however important it might be to their national sense of self. As Tim Vickery always says, football is a universal language that we speak with different accents. And it seems like what we have here is a failure to communicate.


  1. The snobbery exhibited from English/UK fans regarding US football is disappointing.

    I think fans in the UK are often slightly spoilt by the fact that their league is one of the top 3/4 in Europe. Any league that is below that rank (Holland/Scotland/Czech/US/wherever) is often dismissed as substandard - heck, even La Liga and Serie A are dismissed at times!

    To take Scotland as an example, many in England have derided the league as "shit", yet it's still one of the top 12-15 leagues in Europe (despite the 1000 problems with it), not bad considering the state of the national team.

    One of the best things I saw during the last World Cup was a youtube video showing reactions of US fans celebrating Donovan's goal all across the US. Not only did it show that US fans were actually *interested* in football, it also showed they *cared*. They cared deeply about their team.

    Another thing to mention is the atmosphere's at MLS games. Some videos I've seen show great atmospheres and great chanting from the US fans (far better than in many clubs in the UK). When fans such as Palace attempt to re-create an "ultra culture" in the UK they are derided and mocked. At least they are doing *something*.

    Anyway, that's a rambling and difficult to understand reply to the above post.... which I thought was excellent btw!

  2. Good article and nicely put, but please, what are we meant to do? The U.S. are not very good at football and the MLS is pretty terrible to watch. Are we meant to get excited about football over the pond? I think we Brits will continue to take pleasure from you being not very good at the game until the entirely predictable point at which you become better than us. Then you can start to berate us all you like.

    The blogs are good, though, you're right.

  3. Excellent post. That feeling of US deficiency extends to many in the US as well. Not so much with the US national team (in the last several years, at least) but with MLS it is a huge problem. Too many football fans here apply some sort of litmus test to MLS, ie., "MLS is not as good as (enter Euro league here) and therefore, I'm not bothering with it." I don't know how many people in Estonia say, "ugh, our league is shit, I won't watch it - good thing I'm a Chelsea fan" but there is a particular tendency for some in the US to wear that approach as some sort of badge of honor.

  4. "The U.S are not very good at football"


    I seem to remember Group C finishing in that order in the recent World Cup. And the US win over Spain in 2009 in the ConFed Cup is better than any win England has had in quite a long time in terms of competing with the top international squad.

    The fact of the matter is that England isn't nearly as good a footballing nation as the ridiculously arrogant fans make it out to be.

  5. Gah. I just wrote responses to each of your comments but Blogger screwed me over by cutting out when I pressed Post.

    Sorry, I will get back to you all.

  6. You complain about the 'lazy stereotyping' people make of Americans, while then going on to say Brits are possessive of football, uncomfortable at football being bigger than them, and overly-protective. Who was making the unjustified generalizations again?

    "It’s no exaggeration to say that, while the typical English person certainly knows more about the game than the average American, the average American soccer fan is considerably better informed than their English equivalent."

    From the evidence I've received, that is a gross over-statement. I am probably not as well-informed on this issue and yourself, but I can only comment on what I've experienced, and, having lived in America for three months having grown up in England, playing, watching and talking football in both places, reality is the complete opposite of what you've said here.

  7. You're right that I failed to justify the things you mention in your first paragraph. That was an oversight, but I will stand by the fact that events around the FIFA election and the FA's directionless protest show that the people running the English game are uncomfortable with not being a major player in world football. But, again, I didn't clarify that and you were right to highlight it.

    As for the second part of your comment, clearly I'm not going to contradict what you've experienced. But I will say that it probably varies depending on which part of the country you visit. Maybe I put too much emphasis on "soccer cities" like Portland, and not enough on the rest of the country.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

  8. Excellent article, it's a shame how little respect the US fans seem to get abroad. I think a large part of this is simply lazy anti-Americanism, although I think that in England we're actually quite yankophile (is that the right word?) compared with other parts of Europe.

    I have several American friends at uni, two of whom claim to be football fans, but whilst one of them is extremely knowledgeable about the game, the other just likes Barca and United and knows very little beyond that. That's just my experience, but it might tie in with youngsportswriters view, although it's only two people so probably doesn't really mean anything.

    I think part of the negativity may come from comparing football with American sports, most people I know consider American Football to be nothing more than an extended Budweiser advert occasionally interrupted by a glorified game of catch, and thus think that Americans don't have the attention span to watch two 45-minute halves. But to be honest, that's just another lazy American stereotype.