On Friday, the world’s biggest sporting event, the World Cup, kicked off in South Africa. The United States, long unfamiliar with the sport, has over the last two decades increasingly taken to the game and is now widely considered a rising power. Yet as soccer has grabbed the spotlight, it has also attracted the scorn of nativists on the right, who see the growing attention being paid to it as a byproduct of some conspiratorial leftist plot or the result of insidious foreign influences. Fox News host Glenn Beck ranted, “I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much.” Whether one is a fan of the world’s game or not, the notion that soccer’s growth is part of some plot is reflective of a conspiratorial nativism all too prevalent among the right wing. Soccer is a growing sport in the United States, across all demographic groups, and as a result, the U.S. national team, as seen by its draw in its first World Cup game against England on Saturday, has rapidly improved and is now capable of competing with the world’s best. This has led to unprecedented excitement in the United States and an extraordinary level of exposure for the game. Instead of something threatening, this is a demonstration of the ever evolving nature of American society and our global interconnectedness.
CONSERVATIVE CONSPIRACY: The growth of soccer in the U.S. and the notable expansion of attention and enthusiasm surrounding this World Cup has given rise to numerous conservative conspiracy theories. Matthew Philbin on the conservative site NewsBusters asserted, “The liberal media have always been uncomfortable with ‘American exceptionalism’ — the belief that the United States is unique among nations, a leader and a force for good. And they are no happier with America’s rejection of soccer than with its rejection of socialism.” Media Research Center’s Dan Gainor asserted that “the left is pushing it in schools across the country.” Guest host Mark Belling on the Rush Limbaugh Show added, “They’re force-feeding this down our throats.” Beck blustered, “It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us, it doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it. … They continually try to jam it down our throat.” By this logic, one of the major leftist socialists who is pushing soccer is Beck’s employer, Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Soccer Plus show more soccer than any other networks. Furthermore, ESPN, which is broadcasting the World Cup, is devoting previously unseen amount of resources to their coverage for an American network. These networks, and big corporations like Budweiser and Coca-Cola, are not investing in soccer because of some leftist motivations, but because doing so is increasingly lucrative.
MORE CONSERVATIVE CANARDS: Another right-wing claim is that soccer can be liked by socialists only. Neoconservative Gary Schmitt wrote, “My suspicion is that the so-called ‘beautiful game’ is not so beautiful to American sensibilities…in sports, that means excellence should prevail. Of course, the fact that is often not the case when it comes to soccer may be precisely the reason the sport is so popular in the countries of Latin America and Europe.” The notion that excellence doesn’t prevail in soccer is absurd, as demonstrated by Brazil’s continued dominance and the fact that only seven countries have won the World Cup. Gainor said, “the problem here is, soccer is designed as a poor man or poor woman’s sport,” adding the sport “is being sold” as necessary due to the “browning of America.” Claims that soccer is a “foreign” ignores the fact that the game has become a major part of the American cultural landscape. Soccer has now for decades been a mainstay of the suburban middle class. It was so thoroughly embraced that conservative political consultant Alex Castellanos coined the term “soccer moms” to describe the swing voting group of middle class suburban white mothers who spent countless hours in minivans driving their children to and from soccer practice. As conservative Stephen H. Webb lamented, “Conservative suburban families, the backbone of America, have turned to soccer in droves.” Conservatives seem immensely uncomfortable with the growing diversity of soccer in the U.S., represented by the fact that so many women and Latin American immigrants have brought that tradition here from their home countries and have helped expand the growth of the sport in the U.S. The American men’s national team currently playing in South Africa closely resembles the ethnic melting pot of the country it represents. Perhaps, that is why so many on the right have a hard time rooting for them.
THE UNITED STATES IS EMBRACING SOCCER: In the U.S. today, more kids under 12 play soccer than baseball, basketball, and football combined. According to FIFA, the United States has 18 million registered soccer players, more than any other country in the world. American youth have been playing soccer in the millions since the 1980s, and as this initial soccer-playing generation enters their 20s and 30s, there is a growing market in the U.S. that is interested in soccer. Furthermore, the increasing interconnectedness brought about by globalization has removed barriers to follow the sport, with access to soccer expanding with the growth of cable and satellite channels and the internet. As a result, each successive World Cup has attracted more attention in the States. The U.S.-England match drew 17 million viewers — more than the current NBA finals. The U.S. professional league, Major League Soccer, has recently expanded into new cities despite the recession and has seen league-wide attendance grow to more than 16,000 on average — quite strong for a league only 14 years old. Soccer is also immensely popular amongst women, and the U.S. women’s national team is one of the top teams in the world. The U.S. men’s team has also made immense strides in the last two decades after not even qualifying for the World Cup between 1950 and 1990. In 2002, the U.S. reached the quarterfinals. Last year, they beat the world’s top ranked team, Spain, and narrowly lost to Brazil in the finals of the Confederations Cup. The U.S. also finished first in its World Cup qualifying group for the second time, coming in above Mexico.