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America Joins the Global League

Updated On: Jun 30, 2009

It is the Sunday before America’s Independence Day. But the day marked American interdependence with the global community in a way never seen before.

Americans loves sports but that love has often been confined to their own unique trinity of baseball, basketball and “football”. On this Sunday, however, America connected with the world through the game that is near universal – soccer. The USA played in the final of the Confederation Cup against Brazil, the country that has most often been world champions and the master proponent of ‘the beautiful game’.

The match was played in South Africa but I watched it live just off Penn Station in mid town Manhattan. The cavernous Irish pub cum sports bar was packed with maybe 400 people.

A Singaporean friend, Eddie, asked me along. He is a long time New York denizen, and still plays soccer every weekend from spring into early winter. There were three of his team mates -- a Mexican, a Honduran and an Italian-Irish guy – and Eddie’s girlfriend, all Americans whether by birth or immigration.

We drank beer – Guinness or Brooklyn lager are the favorites – and I scoffed some spicy chicken wings. But otherwise we just watched. The Americans go 2-0 up and the unexpected lead makes the crowd heady. They greet each pass and foray with Oohs and Aahhs, and yells of “Yeah!” and “Go USA!”

At half time, the beers flow and there is a buzz. Moans greet the first Brazilian goal, immediately after the restart. When Brazil equalizes there is stunned silence and foreboding. By the winner, the Americans have all but given up.

A small band of Brazilian supporters, wearing the yellow and green jersey of the country, stand up and start to samba. Then the Americans chant “USA, USA”, even as they get up and stream out. They should not be too disappointed.

In 1994, when the USA hosted the World Cup, soccer in the USA started with a whimper, without enthusiasm or even understanding. From that to this final against Brazil is an incredible story. Underpinning this, over the fifteen years, it has become one of the most popular sports among kids across the country, especially in cities.

There are of course gaps. The so-called Major League Soccer struggles. The New York team -- the Red Bulls (sponsored and named for the Thai-origin energy drink) draw some 3,000 spectators for an average game. Compare that to baseball where the New York Yankees sells out crowds of 50,000 plus. Coverage of the soccer final in USA Today and most American newspapers is limited.

But this is more than a story about soccer. It is a story about Americans dealing with the world outside; a world that is not only different but also more equal.

Soccer takes Americans outside the familiar. Many Americans still don’t bother with soccer, especially in the interior and rural areas. Who drives much of America’s interest in soccer are people who have come with a previous soccer-loving tradition, like Eddie and his immigrant New York team mates. It is not so much that America has changed to like soccer, but that soccer fans are coming in and changing America.

In time, given the interest of younger Americans, soccer following might rise to levels comparable with other countries in the world. But America’s entry into that a world may not be easy.

Americans are used to being number one and dominating things. When basketball at the Olympics first allowed professionals to play, the USA assembled a dream team and took pride in trouncing everyone else. In baseball, the pinnacle is called the world series, although Canadians are the only non-American teams that play.

Soccer is a different sport. Before this cup, the USA was rated 14 in the world. Not bad but behind countries like Croatia, Turkey and Paraguay. Even during the cup, the USA lost three games and only qualified because others stumbled.

The Newsweek editor and CNN interview show host, Fareed Zakaria, has written about a Post American world. This is a world where America must get used to others being more equal to it, and in which the USA cannot unilaterally impose itself and get its own way. Written even before the current crisis, the book is even more relevant today, as America struggles to deal with the current problems and may well emerge diminished.

Zakaria’s book is about economics and politics, not soccer, and his view is that America will still be number one, not an also ran. But soccer can be a good everyday lesson for Americans.

It will not be an easy transition for Americans to live in a world where Brazil or others can best them, especially when they were ahead at half time. Let’s hope that, like the fans in the pub, Americans can still cheer and accept the change of circumstances. Then all of us may raise a glass not only to America’s Independence Day but also to their interdependence.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and is in New York for 2009 as Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society.

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