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Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup Success Not a Mark of Superior National Character

Posted By on Thu, Jun 24, 2010 at 5:30 PM

click to enlarge 'American spirit' on parade...
  • 'American spirit' on parade...
Yesterday's 91st-minute goal by Landon Donovan to transform the United States from hapless losers to potential World Cup champions was that rare sports moment that could just make you cry. And not tears of joy -- which are light and spontaneous -- but the tears of many years of sporting misery suddenly and utterly whisked away. This was emotional decompression. When the Giants finally win the World Series, San Franciscans will shed buckets of these tears.

Following the contest, Donovan noted that his team encapsulated the "American spirit." Certainly they have mirrored much Americans hold dear -- an indomitable will to win, a refusal to concede even the possibility of defeat, an uncanny ability to perform at the highest level during the most dire moments, and, bluntly, a mantra of "We don't take no shit from no suckers." It's tempting to think that the U.S. World Cup squad is mirroring our nation out on the soccer pitch. Tempting -- but wrong.

It's a foolish and even dangerous notion to think that the athletic

endeavors of 11 talented men in short pants and cleats is somehow

representative of the national ethos.

If we were to believe that Donovan and Co. are, somehow, channeling the American character in South Africa -- well, then, how to explain 2006 when the Yanks were overwhelmed by a group that included Ghana, the fearsome Czech Republic, and eventual champs Italy? And how to explain 1998 -- when the United States, statistically, came last in the field of 32? How did this mirror the American spirit?

In truth, conflating the on-field performance of a sports team with the fate of a nation of millions is like gambling -- it only works when you're winning, or someone you don't like is losing. Both France and Italy were unceremoniously dumped in the first round this year. You can make all sorts of allusions to hot-headedness, questionable leadership, and old European powers on the wane. But that's not why those squads came up short. They lost due to Italy's bad luck, lackluster play, and inability to put the ball in the net -- and France's general ineptitude in every facet of the game. That's a soccer problem, not a matter of national character.

Perhaps it's generous of Donovan to allow Americans to see themselves in the triumph of his team. But they were the ones winning the game; it's a testament to the resolution and ability of American soccer players -- not Americans. They've done us proud. They've thrilled us. They represent us -- but they don't represent us.

Photo   |   Jarrett Campbell

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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