Playing Right Wing:

In the wee hours of last Monday morning, the American soccer team claimed its biggest World Cup victory ever, defeating Mexico 2-0 in a second round match in Jeonju, South Korea. But walking through the streets of Washington DC, you wouldn't have known it. Apart from a few forlorn looking Latino men standing with their heads bowed at the bus stop, evidence of this historic triumph was nowhere to be found. In Dakar, thousands of Senegalese had celebrated in the streets when their team beat Sweden in a similar round-of-16 upset; and in London hundreds of England supporters jumped into fountains in Trafalgar Square to celebrate their shutout victory over Denmark. But despite the fact that their team had just enjoyed a similar triumph, most Americans were still asleep.

Though Nielsen Media Ratings indicate that viewership is on the rise, professional soccer ratings -- even during the World Cup -- still pale in comparison to other sports, golf included. Despite the three million children who played in youth soccer leagues in 2000-2001, the sport has yet to fully catch on. This fact continues to encourage those who care little for the "beautiful game," and has even revived a latent soccer-bashing political right in the United States.

Perhaps the first evidence of conservatives' aversion to soccer appeared during the last World Cup in 1998, when denunciations of bourgeois, liberal, Clinton-supporting soccer moms graced the pages of National Review. Tirades against the inevitable hooliganism of the game were entertained in the right-wing press as well. Taken together, these seemingly divergent criticisms from soccer-bashers gave rise to the peculiar and ironic phenomenon of assigning a political label to what is perhaps the only sport known to have united fascists and communists, bosses and workers, and millionaires and slum-dwellers behind their respective national teams.

Conservative magazines such as National Review and The Weekly Standard would have us believe that by remaining indifferent to soccer, Americans are heroically resisting the onslaught of a sport that is "for bureaucrats, socialists and overbearing mothers." As Stephen Moore wrote in National Review in 1998, "I am convinced that the ordeal of soccer teaches our kids all the wrong lessons in life. Soccer is the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports -- which may explain why socialist nations dominate the World Cup."

This type of analysis may be lent a superficial plausibility because of the well-known political gulf between the U.S. and Europe. Thus, The Financial Times recently attributed the new transatlantic divide to Bush's inability to communicate with European leaders when it comes to sports, namely soccer. But lo and behold, even the famously disinterested President Bush called U.S. coach Bruce Arena and the team just hours before they faced Mexico, telling a surprised squad, "The country is really proud of the team... A lot of people that don't know anything about soccer, like me, are all excited and pulling for you."

Indeed, Moore must be eating his words as his United States advance to the quarterfinals against those commie Germans, surrounded by other perennial reds like the South Koreans, the Spanish, and the Brits. In fact, to hear the right tell it, it would seem that the leader of the capitalist world has betrayed its values by engaging in a sport that -- like hockey or football -- could, god forbid, end in a tie. According to Moore's theory, "The purpose of a capitalist economy is to produce the maximum output for the least amount of exertion. Soccer requires huge volumes of effort but produces no output." His fellow National Review soccer-hater John Derbyshire has echoed this sentiment, arguing that "The very inconclusiveness of soccer is, I suspect, what has made it the pet sport of the repulsive bobos ... The game is, in their eyes, relatively untainted by that knuckle-dragging, masculine competitiveness that disfigures the more prominent American sports."

Fortunately, another National Review writer, Ben Domenech, has exposed the idiocy of Derbyshire's rant, explaining that in most parts of the globe the game is not the polite domain of the minivan-driving soccer moms Moore and Derbyshire so despise. "Soccer is a rough, violent, populist game, with none of the traits liberal elites might find attractive. The games are fast, intense, rough-and-tumble contests of speed, skill, and bravado waged on cracked asphalt," writes Domenech. But nevertheless, the soccer-basher arguments resurfaced last week when Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard, penned a critique of the soccer fans who every four years attempt to "chastise and convert the non-believers...[and] force the soccer agnostics to submit."

In the end, of course, the success of the US team may make the case for soccer in this country all by itself. Certainly it has fueled the growing interest of President Bush and the millions of others Americans who tuned in at 2:30 a.m. Monday to watch the US beat Mexico on ESPN and the Spanish-language channel Univision. The BBC estimates that combined viewer totals from Monday's game might surpass three million and set an all-time record for a soccer television audience in the United States, despite the fact that soccer games are not conducive to the lucrative advertising that drives most American network sportscasts. This Friday's match against Germany is likely to garner even higher ratings. And then, just maybe, Derbyshire, Last and the anti-soccer crowd might finally realize that their mom and apple-pie crusade against the beautiful game could ultimately backfire or, even worse, be labeled un-American.