There are some comments by foreigners about the United States that stand the test of time. The most enduring of these is the observation that only Americans would call something a ‘World Series’ in which the participant is a single nation. That single nation being the United States of course. Why does this comment strike foreigners so much? Because the title ‘world series’ for an all American event appears to embody the insularity and even arrogance that foreigners (particularly those who have just moved to the United States) find dizzying.
Added to this is the traditional lack of understanding and indeed disdain that many cultures have for the world of marketing. In many countries (largely due to state owned stations) there were no commercials or else they were gathered up at the end of a program to avoid interruption. So even if they have lots of commercials now, many people grew up without them or with many less than on American tv screens and radio. American shows with their built in commercial breaks look odd on overseas channels. Without marketing in their DNA the explanation that ‘World Series’ sounded better than ‘US Series’ cuts no ice with foreigners. Nor does the questionable logic that it was effectively a ‘world series since the teams were the best in the world.’
I experienced my first World Cup match living in Tunis in the 1980s. The foreigners on the street were me and an Italian family. The US had no soccer team so they invited me for some of the matches including the final match in which Italy became the world champions. After the game Tunisian neighbors congratulated them and I realized for the first time that soccer matches (which can be the catalyst for violence in many places) forged a special kind of international bond. It is not a bond that Americans understand easily. It is not the same as the Olympics which has so much variety and where the stars change more often.
Soccer across the world is pretty much played by everyone and it can definitely overcome difference. When my son was 7 we were walking in the park. Some picnickers were resting nearby and one of them (a man in his late 20s) had a soccer ball. The ball got away from him and my son kicked it over to him. The man kicked it back to my son. My son kicked it back. The kicks got longer, wider and harder. The man stripped to his undershirt because this little boy was serious. The game went on and on. The man never missed a kick and neither did my son. I eventually put a stop to it because I could see this continuing all night and we were meant to be taking a walk. But that impromptu game between two people, two decades apart in which no word was spoken symbolized for me the link between world wide soccer fans. Fans who connect through the game and know each others teams across boarders – or at least the most famous ones. The British may not be good at foreign languages but they have little difficulty manipulating complicated names of teams and players from Spain to Turkey.
If they were to take off their “Americans are arrogant” lenses they might see what I saw when I first thought about the World Series and the World Cup. The United States is a country that has tried to make the best of a difficult fact. We play sports which are so much a part of our culture they have tended to separate us from people overseas. Today much more of the world plays basketball and baseball and even American Football but traditionally the world of the American sports fan overseas was an isolated and even a lonely one.
This isolation has also prevented us from using sports to the fullest to lessen international tension. We learned this lesson when President Nixon was in office. As a prelude to his historic visit to China, the Chinese invited the US pingpong team to a match. I doubt that 98% of Americans had watched a pingpong tournament before but they were glued to their television sets for the match. The soccer world of course also afforded this opportunity when United States and Iran played each other for the first time a few years ago. That was universally celebrated as an ‘historic occasion’ but other US attempts to get involved in the World Cup have been treated as intrusive. When the World Cup was held in the US in 1994 and later when Budweiser became the official beer, both decisions were criticized. Who did the Americans think they were!? They are not real soccer people!
Happily, that is the past. Today we are just another country in the World Cup. We are one of the gang. And it feels very good to come out of the cold and be a normal participant in an authentically international team sports competition.