The World Cup is here and -- even if they failed to qualify to play in Russia -- Americans are going to be hearing the word "soccer" a lot for the next four weeks ... if not the next eight years, with news that the US, Mexico and Canada have won the contest to host the 2026 tournament.
What a beautiful thing for the beautiful game that America can get along well enough with its "arch rivals" Mexico to put on the world's biggest sporting event.
Or let me put it another way: What the hell is going on here? As the next month will demonstrate, soccer is not merely a game but a chance for a series of geo-political entanglements, a settling of scores and an opportunity to lord it over the rest of the world.
Let this expat Englishman living in the United States explain what's at stake here.
Soccer was a long way from cool in England when I attended my first match in 1981. Our teams were dominant in Europe but attendance was in decline.
My grandmother's friends in Birmingham made clear to my father that he was mad to consider taking a 7-year-old boy to a home game. At least leave before the end, they counseled him.
We did (after a 1-1 draw with Everton). But not to "beat the rush," as Americans might say today. We left early to avoid the crowd violence that typically followed Birmingham City's home games in those days.
England's national sport was infected with the cancer of hooliganism back then. Being a fan meant each game carried a risk of being caught up in a brawl.
Football -- as we call the sport in England (except for the truly posh who use "soccer," the antiquated abbreviation of Association Football that lives on in the US) -- with its drab stadiums, nondescript meat pies and casual violence had an image problem.
Things have changed since then. The racist monkey calls that greeted black players are gone. The big clubs all have sparkling new facilities. And the broadsheet newspapers, which once looked down on the sport, print extra sections to cover the results.
Any budding politician has to have a favorite team -- even if we know they spent their teenage years reading political biographies, not kicking a ball around in the park.
Yet some things never change. Have you watched a Premier League game on TV? Notice how there are fewer team jerseys on display than at the average NFL game or MLS fixture. Particularly among those who have traveled to support the away team.
Wearing football shirts remains the fastest way to be barred from entering a pub.
I grew up with "no colors" signs hanging in pub windows. Nothing to do with race, just the fear that the barroom would become a battlefield after too many beers.
Even now, to wear a soccer jersey in public in England is freighted with symbolism: A demonstration of working-class solidarity or an indicator of questionable manners and uneven temperament, depending on your point of view.
So I can never quite get used to the attitude in the US, where a soccer jersey means something else altogether and the attitude to the game is completely different. The sport is newer here. And foreign.
There are the immigrants, of course, who bring their love of the game from Latin America and around the world, whose colors are a badge of who they are and who they belong with.
But it is also the uniform of a metropolitan elite that is cosmopolitan in temperament and internationalist in outlook. A Barcelona jersey is about not just the sport or the club or Lionel Messi, the team's star, but about a mindset.
The wearer has eschewed the ritualized violence of American football and the nostalgia of baseball, in favor of the grace and invention of the very simplest of sports, one that needs no razzmatazz injected into halftime shows. And with that comes a tacit rejection of American exceptionalism, and the notion that the winners of the World Series or the Super Bowl can be the world champions of anything.
It is the sport for American globalists and liberals.
By the way, these people are sickening to watch a game with, what with always pointing out an interesting piece they've just read in The New Yorker or offering their tasting notes on a craft IPA.
Their advantage is to be part of something new, something that does not come with baggage. It is a clean slate. For the first time many US fans are coming to terms with the pain of missing out on their national team qualifying.
How different that feels. We England fans know the weight of our baggage, whether the eruptions of violence that still follow our team or the terrace chants that celebrate a time long passed.
While the rest of the world celebrates the global game, we want the world to know that no matter what you may have heard, we invented it.
And should England meet Germany during the next four weeks then expect the stadium to reverberate with our traditional cry of: "Two world wars and one World Cup."
It is ugly and jingoistic and reminds me of the very worst in the English game. Right up until the point I remember that we are singing it because Germany will win.
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