Adam Ash

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Czechs trounce US in World Cup, but do Americans give a shit?

The US Wises Up To the World Game
In foreign policy as in football (soccer), a little tolerance goes a long way
By Peter Hartcher

Even as the world stops to watch the World Cup, a survey of American public opinion published this week by the Pew Research Centre seemed to confirm the country's disdain for the "world sport". Only 4 per cent of Americans said that it was their favourite sport to watch.

How did this compare with the made-in-America sports? American football commanded first place with 34 per cent, basketball was next with 14 per cent and baseball enjoyed 13 per cent. The chief reason for US wariness of soccer, as with the metric system, is its foreignness.

"It's always been associated with immigrants and Europeans, and the resistance has always been because of the cosmopolitanism it represents," says Franklin Foer, the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalisation.

In Latino-rich Los Angeles, the Spanish-language broadcast of the 3-0 drubbing of the US by the Czech Republic this week was watched by almost three times as many people as the English-language version.

It has become a political symbol. "Opinion on soccer doesn't divide precisely along political lines, but it has become an emblem of yuppie liberals - like me - and it's generally opposed by conservatives," says Foer, who is also the editor of the magazine The New Republic.

Conservative suspicion was led by Jack Kemp, a former gridiron player and the Republican candidate for the vice-presidency in 1996 who in 1986 opposed a plan for the US to host the World Cup. "I think it is important for all those young out there, who some day hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist sport," he said.

So it was no surprise that the most rabid of America's right-wing dailies, The Washington Times, published a front-page story this week rejoicing in football's marginalisation in the US and opening with a fan of the NASCAR car-racing circuit, one Rich Possinger, asking: "What's the World Cup?"

The Pew Research Centre published another poll this week, widely reported around the world. A parallel survey of 17,000 people in 15 countries showed that America's standing around the world continues to fall, principally because of its occupation of Iraq.

"It's down strikingly in key countries - Spain, India, Turkey, Indonesia," reports the editor of Pew polls, Carroll Doherty. "When we ask about the greatest danger to world peace, in Britain as many people say it's the US presence in Iraq as say it's Iran's nuclear program."

Underlying the worldwide slump in esteem for the US is the idea that it is a rogue superpower acting in high-handed unilateralism.

"Whenever we ask the question, we get a strong majority almost everywhere in the world that the US acts too much on its own without consulting other countries," says Doherty.

In foreign policy as in football, it seems. Two centuries ago the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that "America is not a country, it is a world". And often it seems to be a world unto itself.

Yet there are some indications that change is afoot in America's reaction to football, and perhaps even in its policy approach toward the rest of the world.

The American ABC network broadcast three matches from the opening weekend of the World Cup. None involved the US team. The average audience was 3 million. This was an increase of two-thirds from the audience that watched two equivalent games from the opening weekend of the World Cup in 2002.

And while a scant 4 per cent of respondents told Pew that football was their favourite sport to watch, that represents something of a triumph for the development of the game - that's double the percentage garnered by boxing and four times that of wrestling. It means that football has trumped hockey as America's fourth-favourite spectator sport. And - Rich Possinger take note - it puts it level with NASCAR.

In a 1994 survey, football was ranked well below these pastimes - at an ignominious No 94 in one infamous survey, as pointed out by the Herald's John Huxley last week, a ranking which put it below dog sledding as a spectator favourite.

Foer says there is a larger significance to this advance in football's encroachment upon the American consciousness: "Globalisation is overwhelmingly about America exporting itself and its products and values to the world. Soccer says that is working on the US, too. It's being brought to America by immigrants, and Americans are being sold soccer by a bunch of big multinationals, from Nike to Manchester United."

As with football, so with foreign policy. The decision to invade Iraq was the high watermark for US unilateralism. The disastrous consequences have been a salutary experience.

As the US confronts Iran over its determination to proceed with a nuclear program, it is treading a very different path to the one it took in the prelude to invading Iraq.

In making the decision to go into Baghdad, the US made a perfunctory effort to win the support of the UN Security Council and then brushed it aside when it met intransigence.

This time, however, the US has been much more consultative. In the past few weeks it reached a joint negotiating position with the other permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. As a result it is preparing to negotiate with the Iranian Government as a member of a six-nation group.

Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York explains: "There's clearly been a change between the first and second terms of the Bush presidency. The second-term policy is clearly shaped by Condi Rice.

"It's not the chest-pounding unilateralism of Bush I. And it's not principled multilateralism, but it is a pragmatic multilateralism."

The same change seems to have taken hold in popular opinion. By two-to-one, the American public prefers sanctions to bombings in dealing with any confrontation with Iran.

The world game, at the margin, is changing America.

(Peter Hartcher is the Herald's political editor.)


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