Let me confess at the outset that my lack of interest in the World Cup is matched only by my ignorance of the sport itself. Call me what you will. A philistine. A provincial. A vulgarian. An ugly American. But I have not been getting up in the morning to watch the matches. There is a reason for this I think. Sports are an acquired taste and deeply autobiographical. I grew up on the Jewish faculty-brat diet of baseball and basketball. By the time I was in college and self-consciously developing an interest in the arts and literature, televised sports seemed like something from a distant planet. When I returned to watching sports in my thirties, it was with the intense relish of rediscovering forgotten pleasures. I wanted the sweet succor of bygone days and older knowledge. Learning new things was for different regions of my brain and other times of day. Thus soccer fell between the cracks in my life. Too bad for me, I hear you say.
By not developing an interest in the World Cup, or at any rate by not professing one, I am something of a traitor to my own professional class. Even the most sports-averse and tweed-adorned professor these days can be seen taking a break to watch the surprising run of Ghana or the stalwart march of the Germans. (I find no great surprise, for example, that this very website, ordinarily so earnest and sober, so interested in international affairs, science, and medicine, has two separate bloggers reporting from the games.) The World Cup has in other words developed an odd kind of reach. It is both sports and not sports. Clearly billions of people who grew up in countries other than my own feel an intensity of fandom I cannot really understand, but which equally clearly provides the kind of visceral pleasure in viewing I can. I am however not interested here in what motivates soccer fans in the countries where the sport thrives. What I’m interested in, rather, is the acquired situational appreciation of soccer and its elevation into a sport that is more than a sport.
Perhaps I should just phrase this is as a simple question. Why do intellectuals or the chattering classes or the intelligentsia care so much about the World Cup? The least generous answer is simple Europhilia. Like smoking Gauloises or eating haggis, watching the tournament expresses a kind of vicarious belonging to a different continent, a sign that you spent your junior year abroad in Florence or Paris or Edinburgh and, when pressed, even know a word or two in a different language. Seen this way, one’s viewing habits provide a form of cultural capital and means of distinction. The sport is not simply a competition like the World Series; it is rather something of an aesthetic artifact, the appreciation of which becomes a badge of sophistication. It is, in the words of the New York Times, a “beautiful game.”
To be a little less cynical, the World Cup is for some clearly less about sports than about international relations and politics. On this account, the games are interesting for their allegorical significance. Teams really do represent nations after all. If say Ghana defeats France then centuries of colonialism and domination are momentarily upended in a great reversal of fortune. Even the uglier dimensions of the tournament—violence, “hooliganism,” racism, and the like—are interesting because they express some underlying sociological or political cause. One is interested in the sport not because it is a “beautiful game” but because of what it reveals about class tensions, race war, the new Europe, etc.
In either case, viewers of the World Cup watch the game from a sort of distance: the distance of aesthetics or of politics. The first translates the game into a mark of distinction and cultural capital; the second translates the game into an allegory or a symptom. The thing about such distance, at least for me, is that it gets in the way of the deeply intuitive and primal enjoyment that accompanies watching a sport with which one is intimately familiar. So I return to autobiography. Suburban kids now seem to be introduced to soccer as a matter of course. (Hence the specter of the American “soccer mom” looming large over pollsters and politicos everywhere.) When I was in elementary school back in the 70s, however, soccer was only beginning to be touted as the next thing to come. Some day soon, we were told, everyone would be kicking checkered balls, right about the same time as we would be measuring things in metric. The great metric conversion never came. And by the time soccer camps and leagues sprung up I was very much into other things. I simply never developed the self-transcending pleasure watching soccer that I did with other sports.
I tend not to think my own history is that unique, so I doubt that many Americans of my generation did either. While I am interested in the interest in the World Cup, therefore, the tournament itself leaves me bored.