A new window

The mounting interest in football marks a curious phenomenon in American mass culture (published in the Telegraph)

The US national team, 2012

In the Bhutanese film, The Cup, a restless young monk overcomes the dual obstacles of tradition and technology to screen the World Cup in his Himalayan monastery. Gathered about a television set, his fellow monks are warmed in football’s glow. Watching the World Cup offers relief from the routine of their isolated existence. But it is not simply the sporting spectacle that compels them to break old habits and wrestle with reluctant TV aerials. More than its drama, football provides those in the monastery with a window to another world, one far removed from their mountain perch.

What was true for the celluloid monks is also true for many of us living in less remote places. Football fans of my parents’ generation can recall how they stayed up late into the night, leaning their heads against the mantle-piece-sized radio, listening to the crackle of the latest results from half a world away, odd words spoken in stiff accents that became quickly familiar — Wolverhampton, Blackpool, Tottenham. A few years ago, I was surprised to find myself escaping the heat in Cairo by sitting in a cafe where men were busy shouting at an ungainly, muddy battle on the screen, a match between Aberdeen and Motherwell in the dim reaches of Scottish football, all faithfully commentated in Arabic. There seemed to me then something uncanny about the scene, about the lines — however tenuous — being drawn among cities and peoples. But such ties are almost boringly normal for football fans. It would be silly to inflate the significance or strangeness of these connections, to dwell too long on the fact that people in a wintry English village may watch a match take place in Angola (as I’ve also done) or that somebody in Shanghai can stay up all night to stream Argentinian club football. For football fans, globalization is something thoroughly mundane and barely novel.

Yet it is striking to see the rise of a football following here in the United States of America, a country that has never known the sport’s culture of casual global connection. Football’s profile has grown immensely in recent years, despite competition from more traditional, established sports. The streets of New York have been lined with bars proudly broadcasting the matches of Euro 2012. During the 2010 World Cup, it was impossible to walk in some parts of the city without hearing the drone of the vuvuzela. Football is making significant inroads into the American hinterland. Media doyens now recognize that football is no longer the niche preserve of cosmopolitan elites or immigrant communities, but rather an increasingly mainstream passion. For the first time ever, an English domestic league game was broadcast this year on network TV, normally home to the biggest sporting events in the country.

This was unimaginable in the early 2000s, when football matches hid in the obscure climes of satellite TV and pay-per-view, and when the country’s traditional antipathy to football reigned supreme. The tribunes of American sport routinely derided football for its stalemates, its limited climaxes, and its seeming lack of physicality. Among the more vehement of the sport’s critics, the anchor, Jim Rome, described the game as an “insidious plague” that “will never work in America.” A more fundamental, visceral sentiment lurked behind the bluster; the world’s game was simply ‘un-American’, and, equally, it was ‘American’ to dislike football.

Rome and other pundits are fighting an uphill battle. Though football still labours in the shade of other sports, it is now a growing part of mainstream America. Mounting interest in football marks a curious, new phenomenon in American mass culture. For most of its existence, America has seen itself as a continent of a country not only in its geography, but in a much wider sense. It has been big enough to satisfy its own cultural needs. This is still apparent in various arenas, from the glitz of Hollywood and the entertainment industry to the relative insularity of contemporary American literature, to its many idiosyncratic sports. The incredible diversity of its people and the wealth of its cultural achievements have long encouraged many Americans to see their country as a world in itself. In this, if nothing else, the world’s biggest superpower is not altogether different from the Himalayan monastery in The Cup: within their confines, both cultivate a monastic sense of fulfilment.

Football, by necessity, broadens the picture. It represents a world apart from and independent of the US. Its greatest stadiums sit in alien, foreign cities, its players speak a babel of languages, its fans behave in ways unrecognizable to the average American spectator. Unlike golf and tennis, football has not been sold to an American audience on the back of local heroes; there is no real football equivalent of Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi. A sprinkling of American footballers may ply their trade in the big leagues across the Atlantic, but their moderate success has little to do with the game’s growing popularity in the country. Football is one of the first major cultural phenomena to be embraced by Americans even though their country is largely an accessory to its evolution and drama. Americans don’t look at football as a mirror in which they see themselves, but rather — like the monks in the monastery — as a window to the outside world. In this way, Americans join the vast majority of football fans elsewhere who access the international sport at a certain inevitable remove. Whether watching the World Cup or the English Premier League, they often follow teams and players that have no meaningful ties to their own countries. In their burgeoning relationship with football, Americans are becoming more like the rest of us.

This shift in American public culture echoes a larger transformation. More Americans own passports, travel abroad, and consider leading their lives in other places than ever before. Indeed, the election of Barack Obama symbolized to many that America was slowly climbing down from its pedestal, that it would begin to take its place in the community of nations as a country amongst others, not a country apart. Obama’s presidency has done little to vindicate that belief. But in smaller, modest ways, through football, for instance, Americans may be beginning to change the way they see themselves in relation to others. As the young monk in The Cup knew so well, there is a world waiting beneath the mountain.

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