First Kyoto, now the World Cup

MICHAEL SKUBE teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina.

There are so many reasons we should hang our heads in shame, we Americans. We pollute the planet, we barge into other countries because we don't like their dictator, we won't sign on to the Kyoto accord.

And we're not entirely onboard with soccer either. It's the world's game, you know. That monthlong marathon of 1-0, 1-1 and 2-1 matches, enlivened by an occasional head-butting, isn't called the World Cup for nothing. But how many Americans could tell you who won the last time the world came together as one big neighborhood, as a community. That would have been 2002, and the winner, of course, was Brazil. Of course.

We never seen to be in sync with the rest of the world, never seem to be on the same page. The world values community and togetherness; we value going our own way. We call this individualism. We always have to be different. American exceptionalism, historians call this contrariness of ours, and it's about time we got over it, don't you think?

The Economist, a British magazine that does a brisk business in the United States, made the point last month in a commentary piece that pretty much told us the kind of people we are. "Americans like to think of themselves as global trendsetters and standard-makers," the magazine said. "But a raft of opinion polls since the Iraq war have demonstrated that America is not so much a trendsetter as an outlier -- more individualistic, more religious, more nationalistic, more anti-government and more gung-ho about the use of force in other countries."

Given those head-butting words, it might surprise some Americans to know that the magazine hews to a kind of responsible conservatism, skeptical about state welfare programs but ready to pounce on moral failure like a hound tossed a pork chop. Thus its sniffy sermonizing over Americans' relative indifference to what it calls football and we call soccer. If one of journalism's duties is to comfort the afflicted, even more must it afflict the comfortable, and Lord knows we've had this coming.

For their part, major U.S. newspapers took up the cudgels of international morality and celebrated football -- not the pigskin kind -- like they've never celebrated it before. Good heavens, what coverage! Readers of this newspaper already know how enthusiastically, how exuberantly, the World Cup was reported day in, day out for weeks on end. But it was hardly alone.

The New York Times could hardly contain its sober self. After Italy defeated France on penalty points in the finale, its front page the next day gave the match lavish prominence. Three splendid pictures -- one showing France's Zinedine Zidane using his noggin against Italy's Marco Materazzi, another the disgraced Zidane being given the boot by a referee -- overshadowed desultory news of gunmen rampaging through Baghdad, pulling people from their cars and shooting them.

Well, what else is new? You can read about that any day of the week. The World Cup comes around only every four years, and it was the duty of all to pay rapt attention.

And billions did, on television and on online sites, in bars and cafes. Throngs filled plazas in towns big and small to watch on giant TV screens. It might surprise many, the Economist among them, that Americans by the millions watched as well -- 17 million, according to Nielsen. That's a 150% increase over 2002.

True enough, a sizable chunk of that audience consisted of immigrants from countries where football is the religion that the American variety is in Texas and the Deep South. Circumstances this year also helped. With the World Cup being played in Germany, matches were televised through the day and evening. In 2002, when Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the cup, Americans had to watch in the wee hours of the morning.

Impressive though it was, this was hardly the audience that watches "American Idol," to say nothing of a Super Bowl. It wasn't even the audience that watched the Masters golf tournament this year. But progress is progress, and the media played its part.

The question is whether all the TV and newspaper coverage reflected Americans' actual interest. Surely not. No doubt many more Americans follow soccer today than followed it 10 years ago, and that's just dandy. Even better that more kids play it -- or play any sport that gets them away from the computer screen. But would any other sporting event have garnered such prime acreage in newspapers? Would an athlete in any other sport, bounced like Zidane for unbecoming conduct, have elicited commentary that bordered on an exegesis of "Macbeth"?

It happens that on the same day France and Italy were playing for the World Cup, Roger Federer was winning his fourth consecutive men's singles championship at Wimbledon, one shy of Bjorn Borg's five straight. Wimbledon and Federer took second billing to the World Cup.

It wouldn't have been so 10 years ago, and the reason has little to do with sports. It has to do with global politics. The World Cup was a parade of internationalism, and editors and news producers were its baton twirlers. Americans, they determined, must get out of their isolationist funk about soccer. They must find exciting what the world finds exciting. They must join the party and become a part of the community.

If it sounds fatuous, it is. It's fatuous in the same way the media's coverage of the World Cup was disingenuous. The subtext was transparent: Friends and neighbors, forgive us Americans our sins, many though they be, and accept us into your company. We don't have a great soccer team, but it's getting better. More than that, we don't want to be like those boors next door, the Canadians, so wrapped up in their stupid hockey that they know even less about futbol than we do. We want to be what you want us to be.

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