"U.S wins, Nation's Underpants lose." This was the headline at the website deadspin.com, and it, if crudely, perfectly captures the agony and elation (or if you were rooting for Algeria, agony and agony) of the US's unreal 1-0 World Cup victory over Algeria. If the US team won, they would advance to the next round. If they lost they wouldn't.
If they tied, then it was out of their hands. When England went up 1-0 against Slovenia, the stakes became crystal clear: a 0-0 tie wouldn't be good enough. The United States had to score. Time and time again, the team had clean shots on goal.
Time and time again, the ball sailed off-goal in the thin South African air or Algeria's near-impenetrable defense left them stymied. Even worse, there was a stink of controversy as an early goal by US star Clint Dempsey was disallowed on a highly dubious offside call. As the clock passed the ninety-minute mark and the score remained tied 0-0, the United States was clearly facing the prospect of being sent home without losing a single game. Coach Bob Bradley would almost certainly have lost his job and a team with great promise would have underachieved dramatically.
Then Landon Donovan Soccer scored in extra-time and a primal nerve was struck. I was watching the game in the offices at National Public Radio in Washington, DC, waiting to go on the air to discuss the outcome. Remember, this is NPR: the station that defines calm, even-tempered talk. Let's just say that almost every cubicle and office let out an extemporaneous yelp. Yes, NPR went wild.
I personally felt almost a little drunk at the excitement of it all (which unfortunately may have come across on air.) The United States is not my favorite team by a long stretch. I'm an Argentina guy, myself. But I was reminded of the words of Eduardo Galeano, author of in Sun and Shadow, who said, "Years have gone by and I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.' And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."
Yet after the show, I was reminded about why when the United States wins in international tournaments, it can bring a nasty undercurrent in its wake. I was listening to a DC sports radio show called the Sports Fix with Kevin Sheehan and Thom Loverro (Loverro writes a sports column for the Washington Times). Loverro was dismissive about the quality of the victory, saying, "When I think of Algeria, all I think about are terrorists and Abbott and Costello movies." (Given what Algeria suffered at the hands of French occupiers, they probably have a different definition of terrorism.) The two then debated whether United States vs. Algeria was "a Grenada game" or "a Vietnam game," comparing the soccer game to the two wars—Grenada of course being the easy win and Vietnam the tragic loss.
It reminded why these kinds of international competitions can leave me with such a sour taste. Why can't we just recognize that Algeria played gallantly against a better US team, which won by the skin of its teeth? Why must an insanely miraculous athletic victory also be a reinforcer of cultural supremacy? It's yet another reminder why it is so important for progressives to not just thrill to the joys of sport but be conversant in the politics of sports. The right will forever try to pump the worst kind of racist, nationalist garbage through our play, even at moments that by all rights should be above and beyond politics and just about the electric thrill of the moment. Especially given the right’s (and Loverro’s) contempt for "the beautiful game", soccer of all things shouldn’t suffer the curse of being a cheap, political football.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]