The most-watched TV program of the year happened yesterday – not the Olympics, not the Oscars, but the final of La Copa Mundial. We do Media Mondays around here, so who are we not to notice? Beyond the record ratings in the United States, it just feels different this time – like the Cup is finally a work-stopping, water-cooler-charging event, in a way that it wasn’t, quite, four years ago in South Africa, though the American squad didn’t go any further than it did there. Why? Well, there are these 50 reasons. Besides those, here are ten reasons just for us Yankees:
1. Patriotism. At first soccer seemed too fey, too European, with all those weird commercials and all that finger-wagging that we’re not supposed to call it “soccer.” But at some point between the 2010 South Africa World Cup and now, a lot of Americans woke up to the fact outside of the Olympics, this was the one time we could yell “USA! USA! USA!” without being remanded to the nearest lunatic asylum. #Ibelieve and #USMNT were, you know, things you could tweet while looking up at your Smith and Wesson and your “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
2. Obama. With no second term to run for, Mr. ESPN can now relax and call to congratulate the soccer team and let himself be photographed watching games – Glenn Beck be damned. The UK’s Telegraph is ready to give Obama credit for an entire soccer revival – no, but he doesn’t hurt.
3. No Vuvuzelas. In some ways, America was ready for soccer four years ago, but every match sounded like a medfly invasion. Someone save the crops! FIFA got everything else wrong in the four years since, but it was correct to ban those noxious nattering noise-making nabobs. 45 straight minutes of vuvuzelas was like cleaning out a beehive; 45 straight minutes with no vuvuzelas or commercials, a common experience around the world, was for us a relatively unusual, HBO-like, PBS-like experience…blissful.
4. Tim Howard. Come on, the man was a beast. More saves than anyone else ever? More memes about things he could save than anyone else ever? Come on.
5. “Feminized Atmosphere.” Sure, Brit Hume was ridiculous when he tried to excuse tone-deaf Chris Christie as a “guy’s guy” – but a false diagnosis isn’t the same as a missing symptom. Does anyone think that a current musician could get away with, say, the amount of “Fuck you bitch”es that were on 1988’s Straight Outta Compton? Women have a lot more say over what’s cool nowadays, and let’s face it, the World Cup is fabulously female-friendly: the zenith of school-age girls’ favorite sport, the presence of model-catalog men, the absence of cheerleaders. As one of my feminist friends wrote on her facebook page, “The fact that a disproportionate number of [players] were totally hot also did not hurt.” If soccer ever gets as ubiquitous in the US as it is in the UK, perhaps we’ll hear more about women’s soccer and the shallowness of the most famous WAGs (wives and girlfriends, e.g. Victoria Beckham). For now, this Cup hit this atmosphere with just the right amount of millibars.
6. The Internet. It’s not like the internet wasn’t around four years ago, but in those four years, videos began auto-streaming on facebook, twitter tripled its user base, and millions have clicked beyond America’s biggest sites to poke around the world. Fun place! And apparently very enthusiastic about soccer. Digital culture is a funny beast in 2014; if a site isn’t proud-proud-proud of its own weird niche, it seems like it’s either pandering to millennials or trying to prove why it doesn’t have to (same thing). Generation Selfie understands that the World Cup was a thing long before everything was a thing or no-thing. The World Cup is tailor-made for facebook, twitter, instagram, pinterest, reddit, youtube, tumblrs, buzzfeed, listicles like this one: you know, basically, the internet. And that’s not unrelated to this:
7. Sports Nation. Two things that didn’t exist during the last World Cup were grantland.com, Bill Simmons’ artery from ESPN, and fivethirtyeight.com (in 2010 it was part of the New York Times), Nate Silver’s artery from ESPN. Sports isn’t just a sports-page thing anymore, if it ever was; it reflects on and reflects our lives like nothing else. And this relates to point #5, because Sports Nation is more female-friendly every time an athlete (say, Ian Thorpe the other day) comes out as gay. (Anyone notice the sorta-kissing triumphant German teammates yesterday?) In a reality-star-making, content-streaming world, sports has emerged as the tallest midget in the room, the one thing advertisers will still pay for, because they know people will watch it live. And it’s also true that the World Cup caught us at a good moment: after a shockingly undramatic NBA Finals, in the midst of another baseball summer that’s about as blah as they get (the top team is my team, Oakland; I feel confident that 90% of Americans are unaware of this), soccer matches tapped into our TVs as timely and tasty two-hour distractions. The timing was good for more than one reason: watching any sport when you know the result has all the excitement of watching your toenails grow. It’s not fair, but the South African Cup and the London and Sochi Olympics were largely tape-delay experiences. For some reason, every town in America now has some kind of home-brewery with rustic patios and outdoor TV sets which never get used…except when we can take lunch breaks to check out Argentina-Switzerland or whoever. Now, don’t get too excited: Lord knows we’re not ready to watch regular MLS matches between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. All the more reason to dedicate ourselves this summer fling and pretend we’ve paid our soccer dues for the next four years.
8. Brazil. Raymond Williams famously marked every aspect of culture as either emergent, dominant, or residual, meaning: you’re coming up, you’re on top, or you’re on your way out. To gringos in the USA, Brazil is always emergent, always that band that only your cool friends have seen live. It’s never part of the national conversation, unlike Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and East Asia. South Africa (site of last World’s Cup) had the 1980s to dominate the covers of Time and Newsweek; other than a few fluff pieces during Carnival, the world’s 3rd-largest country (the USA) ignores the world’s 5th-largest country. And yeah, Brazil is cool, from its polyethnic shimmer to its churrascos to its beach culture to the way the Christ the Redeemer statue duplicates/complements Sugarloaf Mountain (yes, we see what you did there, uh, 84 years ago).
The soccer squad is cool, with their mononame preferences (Cher and Sting and Madonna should join up) and that whole we-don’t-need-light-and-dark-jerseys-because-our-yellow-is-darker-than-your-whites-and-lighter-than-your-darks thing. And then a funny thing happened on the way to the final: we actually had to feel sorry for them. Brazil was the ideal one-month love affair: vibrant, gorgeous, powerful, yet with a tender vulnerability just before it dumped us. Perfect.
9. Latinos. We know they’ve been the United States’ fastest-growing demographic, like, forever. But if you google 2010 stories about the 2012 presidential elections (this won’t be easy or fun) you’ll be hard-pressed to find any piece that talks about the importance of the Hispanic vote. That all changed in 2012; everyone’s either brushing up their Spanish or their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Univision maintained American Idol-like ratings all through the last month. (As one of the United States’ many bilinguals, I chose to watch the matches on Univision over ESPN, because I prefer Mexican entusiasmo to British announcers sounding as though they need another tea.) Is Brazil a Latino country? Are we? Does that label matter? The larger point, in case you missed it, was that this was the Western Hemisphere’s World Cup, not only because it was played in Brazil, but also because of who made it to the round of 16: Uruguay and Costa Rica (in a group where they had to beat out England and Italy!), Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Los Estados Unidos. From the Americas, only the small nations of Honduras and Ecuador failed to get from the round of 32 to the round of 16. I really don’t know why so many commentators failed to notice this. TAKE A BOW, Americas.
10. Finally, No Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As a nation, I don’t feel we’ve come to terms with that three-month existential crisis that was the unending, uncontainable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in summer 2010. It doesn’t fit the narratives of the people who make the narratives: was it media-covered too much or too little? Did it help or hurt Obama? Did it change the Great Recession or affect the Tea Party? Was it a failure of people or corporations? Did people watch more or less TV/movies as a result? Because we can’t decide on any of these, we block it out of consciousness, sweep it under our collective rug. But it was a grand failure, lasting the entire time of our last World Cup foray, and if it had any contemporary message that was: This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. We can’t even get this right. I mean, really, who pivots from that to: hey, maybe this is the World Cup we’ll have fun with? Some, yes, as a distraction; but pivoting inward made even more sense. And yeah, we’ll pivot inward again right……………now. But hey, World Cup, you caught us at a good moment. Thanks for the grins, and we’ll see you when you spin around again.