Saturday, March 3, 2012

All Over The World: Soccer and Basic Nationalism

The U.S. beat Italy in a friendly for the first time in 11 matches. This is a big deal for the U.S. Soccer team, and one would hope it can only be good news for  Soccer in America. Of course, the lack of media coverage isn't encouraging, but let's let it ride a little, huh? Anyway, the lack of media coverage of soccer is a whole 'nother blog post, and I'm not sure it would be an interesting one.

What's interesting to me is that the new head coach, Juergen Klinsmann, is getting a lot of credit, especially for his focus on getting players with dual citizenship to commit to the U.S. This is what really fascinates me about soccer. The international tournaments are so important, and no country's national league is so obviously dominant, that we get to see how nationalism plays out for these athletes. I can't think of any other sport where you get that. Baseball draws from a surprising number of countries for the "National Pastime", but international competitions are an afterthought, while MLB is indisputably the most important league, so the players only rarely have to think about which team they'll play for (the World Baseball Classic comes to mind, but has anyone cared about that since the first one? Has there even been a second one? NOBODY KNOWS BECAUSE NOBODY CARES). Hockey and basketball are both pretty international, but the Olympics aren't the be-all to end-all, and the North American leagues are, again, the consensus for the most talented, important leagues. And of course, football is almost exclusively an American thing.

But in soccer? Well, the World Cup is almost certainly the ultimate prize, even though it only comes around every four years. And as for the "best" league...well, who knows? EPL? La Liga? Even Bundesliga has its champions.

And thus, players have some reason to really consider what team they want to play for, and what country they want to represent. I think what we're seeing is that nationalism isn't the ultimate factor. Not just in the regular leagues- obviously, money is the primary motivator there, and I think that's just fine. But even in the international tournaments and friendlies, I think it's clear that players aren't just thinking about their country of origin.

Put it this way. Klinsmann is having some success convincing German-Americans with dual citizenship to switch to playing for the U.S. If nationalism were the primary factor...well...if their stronger ties were to the U.S., then they'd already be playing for it, wouldn't they? And if their stronger ties were to Germany, well, Klinsmann shouldn't be able to convince them to move over, right? So it doesn't make much sense that they'd be switching just because Klinsmann is talking to them. On the other hand, if something else, like, say, playing for legendary figure in soccer means quite a bit to these players, too, then finally, it all makes sense.

I don't really have much of a problem with this. I think pride in your country is worth quite a bit, but at the same time, we should all strive to be citizens of the world, and not let a flag get in the way of our goals and values. But it's really fun that soccer, unlike the other major sports, really lets us see that play out.

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