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In October, the well-funded U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup for first time since 1986. Coaches, players, commentators, and management passed blame around as they tried to cope with what was described as an “utter embarrassment.” Part of the embarrassment came from the fact that the U.S. had invested so much money into their team, yet lost their chance to perform on the world stage to what was perceived to be an economically and geographically inferior nation. Our collective nationalistic pride and ego was damaged by a place most Americans cannot locate on a map.
It is in moments of humility, and sometimes embarrassment, that we are able to assess ourselves and nation most effectively. Inflated egos prevent us from seeing our flaws, which subsequently stifles change that could otherwise result in progress.Back in 2014, when America did make it to the World Cup, our nation had rallied around the team with the simple declaratory cheer, “I believe that we will win!” This, despite little realistic expectation that the U.S. men’s team would actually emerge victorious or even make it out of the group stage, allowed individuals from various backgrounds to join together and celebrate a common interest. But there was no opportunity for such romantic hope this year. Instead, Americans had to choose whether to embrace the sport sans their team, or to abandon the event altogether.
In this political moment fueled by a nationalism that has been imbued with racist, jingoistic rhetoric, and a desire to be great, the World Cup — given the U.S.’s conspicuous absence — is a providential and much-needed lesson in humility. Watching the World Cup this year, which featured a championship game between France and Croatia (the smallest nation to compete in the finals since 1950) illustrates a critical reality that can and should be applied beyond sports: neither money nor military might can make up for a lack of leadership, teamwork, or talent.
In fact, as many experts note, economic disparities laid the groundwork for America’s underdeveloped soccer program, the deficiencies of which have become both material and glaring in recent months. Youth soccer in the U.S. operates on a “pay-to-play” system: the most talented young players (and their families) have to pay exorbitant fees to play on the club level. This, as you’d expect, limits the pool of players that have access to high caliber training. Meanwhile, the powerhouse teams of this year’s contest such as France and Belgium have invested much more funding towards making youth soccer financially accessible. In typical U.S. fashion, money was thrown at the problem, but in a short-sighted manner that focused on high-level results rather than grassroots development that would have cultivated both community and depth. In a sobering reality check, wealth did not result in success when it was not distributed in a responsible manner.
It is in moments of humility, and sometimes embarrassment, that we are able to assess ourselves and nation most effectively. Inflated egos prevent us from seeing our flaws, which subsequently stifles change that could otherwise result in progress. A pretentious national sense of self, as we are quickly learning as a country, prevents us from clearly recognizing our moral, political, and religious failures, both individual and collective. Although the United States’ poor soccer performance seems relatively minor in comparison to the other consequences of excessive national pride, the situation promotes self-examination of the attitudes that led to this failure, and prompts us to look beyond ourselves as we seek improvement.
Besides a lesson in humility, the World Cup also provided Americans an opportunity to cheer on those who are different from us. Initial evidence shows, unsurprisingly, that American viewership of the 2018 World Cup was dramatically lower than in previous years. Although it is not wrong to have a greater interest in one’s own national team, the current precarious relationship between the United States and other nations made the World Cup an opportune moment for us as Americans, especially those of us who seek to embody the ethic of Christian neighborly love, to practice cheering for a country other than our own. Prior to the event, sports and soccer commentators offered American soccer fans reasons to cheer for participating nations, such as picking the team of a favorite Major League Soccer (MLS) player or rooting for the nation of your ancestors.
Sports provide the opportunity, at least vicariously, to share in the joys and defeats of others — to empathize with those we have never met. We develop a momentary connection with the feelings of another, a practice that seems to be increasingly rare. In this World Cup, in particular, we were able to become fans of those who are different than us, who speak another language, practice another faith, or engage in another form of government. Perhaps we even became fans of countries the President has referred to as “sh**holes,” or has sought to physically wall-off from our own nation.
In all this talk of the importance of rejecting the nationalistic rhetoric that has made us increasingly hostile of those different from us, international sports, in a small way, provides us a moment in which we can choose to bestow positive words and affirmations on others. By engaging in the World Cup fanfare, despite that “our team” was not playing, we recognized the endurance, dedication, and passion of some of the world’s best athletes. In a unique teaching moment, we could turn on the television and show our children the unique cultural characteristics of other countries that have fostered excellence.
Failure can breed animosity and blame, but also opportunity for conversation and progress. When France defeated Croatia in the final on Sunday, viewers were able to watch not only some of the most skilled teams in the world, but also one of the most diverse national team’s in the sport’s history. Over half of the French team was composed of recent immigrants to the country from nations such as Cameroon, Morocco, and the Congo.
From the United States’ absence to the final battle for the title, this year’s World Cup reminds us that America is not universally synonymous with greatness. On the contrary, success this year was fueled by grit, teamwork, grassroots passion for the sport, and a diversity created through immigration — all things worth rooting for.
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