The World Cup Offers Americans a Lesson in Virtue
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.
An Opportunity for Humility
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.
Practicing Neighborly Love
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.
America is a country of many cultures, desires and creeds. Some people enjoy one sport, others enjoy this or that hobby, while others observe this belief or deny that doctrine. To use soccer to ‘virtue shame’ the nation as a whole is missing the point of America. Sure, some people are upset the national team lost, but unlike other countries, most people don’t live and die for our team.
We don’t participate in hooliganism, as a nation, after a loss or a win. We don’t riot in the streets like they did in France after their world cup win. Is there virtue in celebrating a win by tearing down storefronts and setting automobiles afire? No. Do cities or college campi suffer some destruction after a national championship victory? Yes, but those could be curbed by different policing and regulatory methods.
America is a country of different opinions and lifestyles and vocations which people are, in general, allowed to practice freely without threat of retaliation. Persons from around the world crave to become Americans by filling out paperwork and waiting their turn, by claiming asylum due to persecution, and even risking their lives by crowding into box trucks and being abandoned in the desert by traffickers. Whether the term ’sh_th_le’ is appropriate or not (it’s not presidential if he even said it) but those are the same countries people want to flee to live in America.
It’s never a good idea to use a wide brush when espousing an opinion what a nation ought to feel shame over. Every country has a ‘dark past’ whether it includes slavery, holocausts, government-mandated famine, lack of voting rights, political corruption, suffragette issues and so on. There’s little argument that Americans are accustomed to victory through sheer strength of funding and highly paid athletes. As long as soccer, and other national teams, are privately or corporately funded, I say go get ‘em!
Of course I want our team to win and so what if I only care every four years? Most Americans don’t hold athletes and the sports they play up on a pedestal but we can appreciate any group of persons who have worked together to accomplish a goal. Nor do we demean those players for failing because we know it’s a part of life. The sports media presents the lie that athletes and the games they play should be held in awe. It’s their job.
The American curling team won their first gold medal in the Olympic games, with very little private and corporate funding. There is virtue in that – the little train that could. Maybe it’s better to write something which builds up rather than tears down.
Rachel, glad to see you wrote this—and about soccer, too! Congratulations on the new gig. I will try to follow your writing although I’m none too swift on some of this newfangled stuff.
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