As a student in the mid-’80s, I had been conditioned to think that the United States normally won all sports competitions, and everyone else largely followed. The 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles epitomized that notion for me, with Carl Lewis winning four gold medals out of the total US haul of 174 medals (including 83 gold).
In the same Olympiad, I remember watching in disbelief as British athlete Zola Budd (running “straight outta apartheid South Africa”) took down US heartthrob and race favorite Mary Decker in the 3,000-meter event. It somehow felt like a hugely deviant act, as if an extremely unwanted house guest had gate-crashed America’s patriotic party.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet Union team was absent from the Games (following a boycott by Eastern Bloc nations), the rules of sporting engagement nevertheless appeared set: “Don’t mess with the US.”
So too in geopolitical matters. The 1980s was the era of Ronald Reagan who, although often ridiculed for his pre-presidential appearances in substandard Hollywood B-movies, was not averse to flexing his, and America’s, muscles when faced with combative or troublesome overseas rivals. Post-Vietnam and pre-Iraq, the US seemed invincible on and off the sports fields of the world.
Yet this was also a period during which the US had a notable Achilles heel: soccer. At this point, I could debate whether it is “soccer” or “football”, though I won’t. It is, however, worth noting George W. Bush’s solution to this conundrum – he referred to the sport as “soccerball”.
Two years after the LA Olympics, Mexico hosted soccerball’s World Cup. But unlike 1984, this was not an American celebration; instead, the US national team failed to qualify for the tournament, though few people noticed or cared.
Football in the US was widely derided and cynically characterized as a sport awash with money but with no fans, played by aging overseas stars who were there in search of one last pay day before retirement.
Ironically, this seems to be the mantle that football in China has recently taken on, as players (and their agents) have rushed eastwards in pursuit of the riches induced by President Xi Jinping’s vision for football.
Adding irony, over the next 30 years after Mexico ’86, China has been seduced by the allure of capitalism and has set about creating its own version of the “American dream”.
As China is now realizing, though, building a nation’s football takes time, requires patience and strategic thinking, and needs a strong focus on grassroots development. Post-1986, the US figured this out; its leagues were restructured, new rules implemented, and grassroots development instigated. In turn, television coverage grew, commercial revenues followed and the US national team showed progress.
During the 2002 World Cup, the national team made it to the quarter finals. It seemed like, as with many other sports, the US was now on a winning path. Although my own conditioning continued telling me that America could not play and was not really that interested in soccerball, its national team’s ever-improving results wedged a contradiction deep inside my brain.
Hence, recently, as the world collectively threw up its arms in shock, I did not. As the qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia concluded, the US lost to Trinidad and Tobago and thus failed to qualify for the tournament.
For me, it’s no big surprise, though I am probably being grossly unfair. US football has taken on a new stature in the period since 1986. Football fans around the world can even recall the names of some of its best players; Christian Pulisic is the latest US star.
Players such as David Beckham (who appeared to be at the height of his prowess when he moved to Major League Soccer from Real Madrid) have played there, new stadiums have been built (the latest of which can be found in Atlanta and Orlando), teams even enjoy the hard-core support of what European fans might refer to as “ultras”.
Indeed, whatever cynicism and derision US football was once exposed to has largely subsided since the 1980s.
Surely, the US at last got what it has always wanted: success in the world’s major sports, and a pre-eminent position on the global political stage. Right? The rise of US soccer has been such that many people were genuinely surprised by the failure of its national team to qualify for Russia 2018. And American players now regularly sign up to play in Europe’s top leagues.
However, as the cynicism about and derision of its football has subsided, they have reappeared elsewhere, notably in the way the world views the country’s president, Donald Trump. Trump has become the 2017 equivalent of US soccer’s mid-’80s national team. Amid the humor and dismay about Trump, there is pathos, too: a Mexican wall in 1986 was a completely different proposition to what it is now, thanks to the Republican president’s view of the world.
There is deep irony embedded in the last 30 years as well. With China set to become the world’s biggest economy (overtaking the US), its football is stuttering and stumbling through what is, at times, a series of national embarrassments. Yet despite China’s inability to play elite-level men’s professional football, the country’s standing in the world is growing. Almost simultaneously, US soccer is strengthening, while its international standing as a country is falling.
Donald Trump appears intent on returning to a bygone era of “America always wins”, which is most obviously manifest in his “America First” doctrine. Yet he will face strong opposition from Xi Jinping and his “China First” approach.
And while this global grapple takes place, I will contemplate yet another wedge of contradiction in my brain – that China intends to win the men’s World Cup by 2050. Which all leads me to speculate whether football success and the political health of a nation are somehow inversely related.
Let’s see what happens in the run-up to 2050.
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