Reborn in the USA

Why the World Cup
makes it OK to love America

By Adrian Chen

This past July 4th weekend, The New York Times published a story about declining patriotism among millennials. Some facts cited: While 94 percent of Americans between the ages of 69-86 say seeing the U.S. flag flying makes them feel very good, only 67 percent of millennials are heartened by the sight of Old Glory. Millennials, the Times argued, have embraced a muted, cerebral form of patriotism that centers on egalitarian principles of democracy rather than a passionate embrace of American identity and symbols.

Someone should have clued in the 20-something dude who climbed a banquet at the Brooklyn bar where I watched the U.S. lose to Belgium on July 1st. Clad in U.S. flag short-shorts, a U.S. flag cape, and U.S. flag novelty glasses, he began blasting on a red-white-and-blue vuvuzela shaped like the World Cup trophy while leading the crowd that spilled out onto the street in a chant of U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

In America we spend the majority of our lives encased in an anti-soccer cocoon, and then every four years—boom—the bubble bursts and we are set loose, blinking into the riotous landscape of International Fùtbol with just days to learn from scratch the grammar of what is, to almost every other country on Earth, a second language. Most of us come to the World Cup as total innocents, which frees us from the tiresome burden of realistic expectations. You might as well take to Twitter and declare the U.S. the greatest soccer nation in the world. (I did this, and the resulting wave of scorn from other users across the globe introduced me to a fascinating potpourri of regional curse words and vulgar idioms.)

To follow the Cup as an American is to enter a geopolitical funhouse where everything we imagine about the world is warped and twisted. Instead of a hegemonic power, the U.S. is a sideshow. GDP and population are largely meaningless to a country’s success, unlike in the Olympics, which is basically how the military-industrial complex blows off steam. Somehow Portugal is relevant?

As an extremely nerdy American, the bizzaro universe of the World Cup has always reminded me of the sci-fi writer David Brin’s Uplift series. In these books, humanity takes to the stars and finds them swarming with an alien civilization so powerful that the only reason it hasn’t conquered Earth yet is that humans are interestingly primitive in a way the aliens believe is worth preserving.

Brin assigns humanity the familiar role of the ecological underdog; the reader roots for them unconditionally, as they would a beautiful-but-endangered bird. For a generation who have watched over confidence in American power lead to disaster, cheering for the U.S. in a contest that we knew we wouldn’t win offers a similar existential thrill. Soccer fandom in America is speculative fiction: What if the U.S. was just a country among countries? It’s the specter of this humbler version of America that causes right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter to freak out about soccer.

But in the end we’re tourists on a month-long vacation we’ve barely prepared for, and that’s what makes it so fun. For Americans, the end of the World Cup is like turning off the lights on all soccer—anywhere—that doesn’t take place on a suburban high school field. Now we can take a nap, comforted by the fact that our boys matched our exceedingly low expectations, and in four years we will wake up, Rip Van Winkle style, barely in time to learn how to pronounce the names all of this year’s crop of new global superstars. It was great while it lasted. But, hey, we all had an excuse to take a couple hours off work and drink beer in the afternoon. Even when we lost, we won. What’s more American than that?

Image credits, clockwise from top: Mario Tama/Getty Images; Don Emmert/AFP-Getty Images; Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/Corbis; Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

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