Real football is the perfect antidote to Trump
Donald Trump may be the “America First” president, but his youngest son is a rather worldly sports fan. Barron, 12, has been spotted wearing a full Arsenal kit, making him a boy of impeccable taste, if somewhat dashed hopes. It’s been a rough couple of years for the London-based soccer club in the English Premier League, a team who pride themselves on artistically pleasing, if not always efficient, play.
Barron is not alone. His is the first generation of American fans to be truly connected to the international game, not just as players but increasingly as followers. This fall of the sports iron curtain, drawing American children — and their parents — into a globalised sports culture, is a powerful attitudinal antidote to the backlash against globalisation in our politics. At a time when so many cultural and political forces are urging us to shrink our world view, sports are expanding it.
For Americans, the nation’s sports isolationism, much like our defiant refusal to go metric, has historically served to strengthen American exceptionalism. Children everywhere learn geography through sport. It took one particularly confusing Cold War World Cup game, in 1974, for me to learn the difference between the Democratic and the Federal German republics.
But when their entire sports universe is defined by domestic events, fans see far fewer dots on the map and discount what lies beyond.
How sadly isolationist to call the championship of a domestic league a “World Series”.
How defiantly isolationist to appropriate the name of the planet’s most popular sport for an entirely different game that is not played anywhere else and does not involve your feet that much. Americans in the past couldn’t talk sport with foreigners, a parochialism that always struck me as awkward for people studying or conducting business abroad.
Sports aren’t everything, of course, and there are plenty of other ways to learn about your place in the world and to connect with people elsewhere. But Americans’ historic absence from this important slice of global life has been especially jarring, given how much we shape other strands of pop culture.
The United States isn’t North Korea, after all — our nation provides most of the world’s shared content. Take children from Nigeria, Argentina, France and China, bring them together, and all their shared references will be American movies, TV shows and music, and they will probably talk about them in our language. Except sport.
But in contrast to previous generations, American children Barron’s age will not be left out of those conversations. I have a 13-year-old son, and I am astonished by how plugged-in his friends are to global sport. So many of them play soccer, and even if they don’t obsessively follow the Premier League or La Liga, they play the EA Sports Fifa video game and follow the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on Instagram. They will watch some of the World Cup and are aware, even if they didn’t tune into the European Champions League two weeks ago, of the Liverpool goalkeeper’s historic meltdown and debates over the perniciousness of Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who cynically fouled the Egyptian Mohamed Salah, forcing him out of the game with an injury. Kids’ social-media feeds blew up with memes about the dramatic match.
Social media, the wildly popular Fifa video game, the ubiquity of international soccer on TV and the marketing of large US companies all increase soccer’s presence in mainstream culture. The degree to which your teenager’s youth soccer is turning him or her into a citizen of the world will vary according to region and other demographic factors — NBC Sports viewership of the English Premier League still skews towards bicoastal elites, for instance — but there is no question that soccer’s rising popularity is a nationwide phenomenon, and that playing the game and following it represent a sea change in how people are connecting to place and one another through sports.
Even casual players and fans are fully aware that the sport doesn’t revolve around the United States. We all know there are better players and better teams elsewhere; that the best a promising young American prospect such as Christian Pulisic, a world-class talent, can aspire to isn’t to get some college scholarship, as it would be in our domestic sport, but to cross the Atlantic at an early age and attach himself to a club such as Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, which he did.
America is becoming a soccer power, but we are far from dominant, and this year fans must experience the healthy heartache of the world’s most popular sporting event taking place without the United States, after our national team’s surprising failure to qualify last autumn. It’s not always about us.
Think about how subversive all this is to traditional “We’re No 1” American entitlement and to “America First” isolationism, and the historic suspicion of soccer in some quarters becomes more understandable. Better for Fortress America to play its own games and proclaim its winners “world champions”, lest we end up with a fifth column of rootless cosmopolitans.
But that column exists, and every year it grows more robust — a salutary counterweight to so many trends pulling us inward and backward. Globalisation, both as an economic fact and as a mindset, is on the retreat everywhere, rolled back by the appeal of nostalgic, populist nationalism. Yet sports continue to globalise, expanding people’s connectivity and understanding across borders.
It’s happening everywhere. In Britain, too, there is a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between the 2016 vote for a Brexit that signalled a national retrenchment and the enthusiasm for its ever-more-globalised Premier League, which draws all-star owners, coaches and players from all over the world. The chants of Liverpool fans that they will become Muslims, too, if their beloved Egyptian striker Salah scores a few more goals are a powerful antidote to the parochialism and xenophobia of English political discourse.
Back on this continent, sports belie the worsening of US-Mexico relations triggered by Trump’s visceral hostility towards our southern neighbour. Pro football, baseball and basketball teams are all planning to play more games in Mexico and expand their fan bases in that country. And while the North American Free Trade Agreement is in peril because of the Trump Administration’s animus towards trade, Fifa is poised on Wednesday to award the 2026 World Cup to a joint United States-Mexico-Canada bid. Meanwhile, the US-Mexico soccer rivalry that had grown so heated when relations between the two countries were friendly has become an arena to express cross-border solidarity: days after Trump’s election, players from both teams posed together for a photo during the pre-match rituals, an unusual move.
Major European teams will continue to tour the United States in the summers, eager to win over American fans, and more and more of them will be taken over by US sports tycoons, who are aware that soccer is the best way to take their businesses global — NFL owners already own Manchester United and Arsenal. American brands are another force pushing the globalisation of sports and an end to our isolationism. Nike, for instance, realised decades ago that it could hardly be the world’s leading sports brand if it wasn’t a big player in the world’s leading sport.
It’s unlikely that the rise of soccer and the decline of sports isolationism in this country will vanquish xenophobia and American exceptionalism in the near future. But hard as it is to quantify, I know it will make a big difference in Americans’ world view, especially as this generation of children gets older.
In the meantime, we have a “Make America Great Again” president who disdains the rest of the world and whose biggest sports preoccupation is whether NFL players kneel during the national anthem. But I’d like to think that his son’s mind is far, far away, wondering, as mine is, whether new coach Unai Emery will make Arsenal great again.
• Andrés Martinez, a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, is also a fellow at New America. He is writing a book on the globalisation of sport