By: Lee Clark
At the opening of the second half, the score sat at 0-0. A spot in the final game was at stake. The United States Women’s National Team had something to prove after Belgium knocked the United States Men’s National Team out of the World Cup last summer despite a heroic defense from Tim Howard. As I sat in the overpriced pub and watched my team, I was on the edge of my seat. For months, the USWNT had been telling anyone who would listen that this was their year. They were ready, and they were better than anyone would expect, and they believed.
Almost no one at home believed with them. A little ironic, given that the slogan and social media push for support was based on the hashtag #believe. I believe, do you believe, we believe. The hashtag was everywhere in the media during the Men’s World Cup last summer. #Believe is still a centerpiece of the USNT’s public image, but, though we’re in the middle of an exciting and unpredictable World Cup with high stakes and no small amount of controversy, no one in the pub seems to remember. When I sat here and watched the Men’s Cup, my fellow patrons were in fine form. Dempsey and Howard jerseys, American flag face paint, and American flags worn as capes were thick upon the ground. As I sit here and watch the Women’s semifinals for my USNT, no one cares. My friend and I are the only patrons watching the match, and we had to ask the bartender to put it on. No one seemed to care, and no one seemed to believe.
Until last night, when the USWNT beat Germany, widely regarded as one of the best teams in the world. Sure, the match came down to calls and penalties, and sure there were some rough collisions (Way to hang in there, Morgan Brian!), but the US came up with a win, 2-0, and a spot in the final match. It’s important to note: the USWNT has won two previous Cups, but a win this year would: a) be the US’s first Cup in 16 years, men’s or women’s, and b) come at a time when the US’s presence in soccer has grown rapidly to become internationally significant. For all of US exceptionalism, we’ve never been major players in soccer.If our ladies can do it, we’ll be scraping faces off Mount Rushmore. Goodbye, TR; hello, Hope Solo. Well, maybe not, but, ya know, I believe. And maybe the rest of us should, too.
Soccer is underrepresented in the US. Though, at the height of the men’s tournament last summer, popularity rose a great deal. Unfortunately, a lot of Americans still see soccer as European, elite, and foreign. Some talking heads even suggested the game was antithetical to American values. They don’t believe. To be sure, most of the soccer fans I know have graduate degrees. Most of the non-pro commentary I hear is based on quirky references to international relations that the average Joe just wouldn’t connect to, like this tweet from Daniel Drezner on the calls in the US-Germany match: “The refs are giving Germany more passes than they got during the Growth and Stability Pact era.”.
But that’s the American way, isn’t it? Taking parts of other cultures and integrating them? Bringing together traditions from all over the Earth and patching them together into a new identity? To be sure, dissent and opposition are also a part of the American way. What’s more traditionally American than rising above adversity to achieve greatness? To believe in one’s self when no one else will? ‘Cause that’s what the USWNT is up to right now. They believe.
And they definitely need all the belief they can get. Held in the midst of a massive scandal involving unprecedented arrests and charges that go to the very top of FIFA, this World Cup has been brutal on players. FIFA authorized the use of artificial turf instead of real grass for the Women’s Cup, causing a number of issues including injuries to players, increased heat on the field, legal action, and changed physics of the ball. USWNT striker and top scorer Abby Wambach was given a warning after criticizing the referee for yellow cards in the US game against Columbia, though many observers called for harsher punishment. Obstacles like these have caused some ire towards the USWNT, but overcoming such adversity and charging into the highest levels of the tournament has gone miles to enhance the USNT’s reputation abroad, especially since the US has largely been absent from the soccer scene since… well, since the game was invented. We didn’t believe.
In international soccer, the United States has traditionally been a non-factor. Over the past year, this changed dramatically, and the implications for America go much farther than soccer. The USMNT gave a tremendous performance in the 2014 World Cup, defying expectations across the globe. The US took a lead role in bringing down the corrupt upper echelons of FIFA, something the international soccer community has sought for decades. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the USWNT defied all odds and advanced to the final match of the Women’s Cup. US prominence in the sport is at an unprecedented high, and the world is watching.
Soccer is the one of the most loved sports in the world today, with a substantial following in virtually every country. It can be at once a unifying interest and a divisive battleground. It can be used as a tool to enrich communities in developing regions. It can spark riots. And, as seen recently in the US, it can be a force for national unity. It is this massive interest and fervor that allowed FIFA to become the disproportionately powerful corrupt organization it now is. Soccer is powerful, and here lies a golden chance for the US to increase its esteem abroad, and boy, do we need it.
A series of badly-perceived wars, revelations of questionable tactics in counter terror, and the disclosure of US acts of espionage against allies and rivals alike have all done serious damage to the US’s international image. Soccer can be a valuable facet of the push to rebuild America’s reputation. The US is bringing its A game to soccer, and in the process an opportunity may be arising. The perception of America abroad is certainly a fluid, nuanced issue, beyond the influence of any one phenomenon. But, with the international popularity of soccer and the power that lies with it, there are certainly worse things the US could do for its image than positively influencing international soccer. Frankly, we need the world to believe.
The fervor around soccer internationally is an immensely powerful energy that the US can tap. The USNTs have already made terrific inroads towards the good esteem of the international soccer community, and the US should do everything it can to encourage its prominence in the sport. We believe, and if we play it right, the rest of the world may too.
Lee Clark is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School for
Diplomacy and International Commerce. His professional interests include diplomacy, security, and humanitarian work. He is currently interested in study abroad and internship opportunities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.