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.