How I stopped telling Americans to stop calling it soccer

As I write this, the Denver Broncos lead the Carolina Panthers in the 50th edition of the Super Bowl 16 to 7 with the 3rd quarter coming to an end. It’s been 2 years since the first time I saw the Super Bowl, when the Seattle Seahawks crushed this year’s champions elect, the Broncos, with a masterclass of defensive solidity. Even to someone like me who does not understand the sport, it was impressive. Two years on, I still have not figured out the rules of the game, and will turn my nose, give off an air of condescending arrogance and tell people that “Football is played with feet, and the ball that is used in American football is more like an egg than a ball”.

Yet, the Super Bowl has come to represent a spectacle of American culture like nothing else, even to the untrained eyes of a snobbish foreigner as myself. My first superbowl experience is of sitting in the Bullock lounge surrounded by the mountains of Uncle Sam’s pizzas, vast boxes of wings and the carefree fervor of people who I would venture are not regular followers of the game either. Yet, one cannot help but be drawn into the fever pitch excitement. The Superbowl is quintessential Americana, a grandiose display of nationalism cloaked, as it so often is, under the sentimental tidal wave derived from sport.

However, this article is not really about the Super Bowl at all. What I’m really writing about is how I got over my elitism and stopped complaining about the word ‘soccer’. I come from a country where every child looks back fondly at childhood memories of rainy days and muddy pitches, splashing around in filth and dirt, kicking a ball back. My country is awful at football (soccer). We’re not built for it, lacking the height, the technical skills or the diet for the game. We’re better at cricket, where one does not need to move around so much. Yet, like any other child in South America or Europe, I was regaled with stories of Bengal’s footballing past; the gargantuan crowds forming for a derby match between two mortal enemies, when Dhaka Abahani and Dhaka Mohammedan would line up opposite each other in a 90 minute duel for glory.

There exists a cultural divide between the US and the rest of the world when it comes to football and it’s American namesake. Americans are always seen as outsiders to the beautiful game, regardless of their efforts and their enthusiasm for the sport. Soccer is the fastest growing sport in the States, and this summer South America’s finest land in the US for the 100th edition of the Copa America. The US Men’s National Team (USMNT) are consistent performers in the World Cup, and their female counterparts are record-setting world champions.

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015

VANCOUVER, BC – JULY 05: Abby Wambach #20 and Christie Rampone #3 of the United States celebrates with teammates after winning the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 5-2 against Japan at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Yet the world will still groan with disdain and wince at the mention of the word, soccer. Major League Soccer will be ruthlessly mocked despite not actually being a bad league at all in terms of talent. But despite its growing popularity, soccer has also been the focus of xenophobic and close-minded rhetoric. Glenn Beck, otherwise known as Donald Trump with an even worse haircut, during the World Cup launched on a hilarious rant that nearly made Fox News’ goblin Bill O’Reilly look like a new age liberal. As taken from an excerpt cited by The Nation:

“It doesn’t matter how you try to sell it to us,” yipped the Prom King of new right, Glenn Beck. “It doesn’t matter how many celebrities you get, it doesn’t matter how many bars open early, it doesn’t matter how many beer commercials they run, we don’t want the World Cup, we don’t like the World Cup, we don’t like soccer, we want nothing to do with it.”

It’s hard enough for people from everywhere else in the world to deal with America’s obstinate exceptionalism, its stubborn refusal to join the metric system being one other example. Unfortunately, I could not find full quotes for Mr. Beck’s flattering words about the global game. I’ve heard that it involves a conspiracy theory about the creeping influences of communism coming over from Europe in the shape of Marx’s manifestos printed on soccer balls and anthropological musings over how the Native Americans played soccer with severed heads and this is of course 100% factual and not at all the ludicrous ramblings of a xenophobic idiot.

But regardless of the far-rights’ view on a sport whose governing body has more member states than the UN, my interaction with this cultural divide has been far more understanding. I no longer cringe if someone says “soccer”. Sports is one of those irrational things that we throw our hearts behind, used as both a tool of authoritarian nationalism and as a tool of revolutionary ideals. It’s been called as a distraction for the working class to keep them obedient in a system that exploits them, and at the same time, has laid witness to demonstrations of the working class’ discontent. Sports are a spectacle, to be witnessed with awe and to be considered beyond the score line and into the territory of its impacts on culture, human ideas and even, the nation as a concept.

Even sitting here at Clark, where athletes complain about being outcasts in the type of antithetical social dynamic which exacerbated my culture shock because this school is so different from everything the movies told me, I remember sitting in the Kneller, in the middle of a group of Chinese grad students yelling ourselves hoarse in the basketball game against Worcester State last semester (of course, this would be overshadowed by the far more important topic of race and racism on campus that would come to a boil at a planned protest at the game).

I have come to stop caring whether its handegg or football or whether its soccer or football. It doesn’t matter. Whatever other qualms I have with the NFL: a horrendous track record on athlete safety and especially concussions, the poor treatment of cheerleaders, the grotesque monetization of the sport converting it into an orgy of sponsorships and allowing Coldplay to do the halftime show this year, all of which are justifiable grievances, I will no longer partake in the sustaining of a meaningless cultural divide, and refuse to further the creation of the otherness and exceptionalism between America and the rest of the world over a word.

Call it whatever you like, soccer, football, futbol, it doesn’t change what it is. At the same time, the “handegg” joke is so stale at this point, and just creates worthless antagonism. Just as Glenn Beck is guilty of being a dismissive xenophobe, so is every foreign sports fan who claims that they cannot be drawn into the spectacle of the Super Bowl.  I’m going to stop talking now. The Broncos won, swatting away the over-achieving Panthers. And despite not understanding the game, despite not being from anywhere near a NFL team, I am greatly upset at this.

-Bareesh

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