For those of us growing up at the tail end of the twentieth century in the United States, football was something performed by Joe Montana, Bruce Smith, John Elway and Walter Payton. Soccer was something else: a game played by American children in suburban parks on Saturdays, and by Latin American, European and African immigrant adults in urban parks on Sundays. The soccer played by me and millions of colorfully adorned kids around the country was rapidly growing in popularity. But there was always a sense that there was something fundamentally un-American about it—that soccer would need some kind of foreign shock treatment to begin to thrive here.
For most of my life, I and my fellow soccer sojourners have been under the spell of a massive (though in some ways understandably justified) inferiority complex, relative to our European and South American and African counterparts. For those of us who were introduced to their histories, styles, cultures, leagues, stadiums and clubs, our imaginations were cast in the direction of what we didn’t have and probably could never attain. It was as if “global football,” in all its complexities and vicissitudes, became a sentimental ideal we were bound to pursue to the ends of, well, the globe. But—at least on the men’s side—we always sorta knew we would fail; the globe was too big, the clubs too powerful, the stadiums too romantic, the leagues too impenetrable, the cultures too rich and the histories too rooted. The more we learned about foreign leagues and federations the more we were convinced that there had to be something wrong with us. Our minds were compromised by SportsCenter; our bodies too practiced in the habits of basketball, baseball and tackle football; our souls too attuned to the rhythms of commercially franchised athletic organizations. Contrary to almost every national instinct and expression since the end of World War II, it became a commonplace to promote the idea that America’s only path to international achievement was to conform to whatever was being done somewhere else in the world.
Slowly, things changed. In 1994, the United States hosted (still) the most attended World Cup in the tournament’s history. Shortly after that Major League Soccer was launched, and then sustained itself for the next two decades by gaining investment from young entrepreneurs who were buying in on the ground floor. In the early years, MLS teams were ridiculed for playing in front of small crowds in enormous stadiums. But smaller, and in some cases architecturally stunning, soccer-specific stadiums popped up all over the country. Added to all this, the women’s national team continued winning World Cups and Olympic Medals. Our men were not as successful, but they did qualify for the last seven World Cups, reaching the knockout stages in four of them.
Whether we noticed it or not, this was a record that most soccer federations would envy. Which is to say nothing of the fact that some of the game’s iconic vanguards—the Netherlands, England, Colombia and France—couldn’t boast of the same. Whether we admitted it or not, the insecurities were at least beginning to wane. Still, there was always the feeling of being the clumsy tourists or recent immigrants. No matter how well we memorized the maps or how fast we picked up the language, we still couldn’t move or speak with a sense of freedom.
“I have been interested in football for as long as I can remember,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, a mostly unnoticed book I accidentally discovered last summer. The volume collected a four-hundred page email exchange between Knausgaard, a (noted) parent of four and now international literary icon, and his friend Fredrick Ekelund, a novelist and playwright. The occasion for their correspondence was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Ekelund traveled to experience the event in person; Knausgaard (usually while minding the children) watched from home. Their respective locations run parallel to the memories they share in their opening letters: Ekelund of his time as a graduate student in Paris, and the unlikely encounter that led to his learning Spanish and Portuguese; Knausgaard of his culturally Protestant sensibilities that mostly compel him to never leave (or even think outside of) Scandinavia. Except, that is, through the lens of football, which he says “creates contact” around the globe: “We can talk about it with anyone. Neighbors and fellow airline passengers as well. It is something we have in common, a frame of reference.” Every four years, “what you get from a World Cup is joy, excitement, fascination, togetherness. And that is not bad.”
Apart from the excitement of a quadrennial spectacle, Knausgaard looks back on football as “one of the [few] activities we did which filled us with joy: a ball, a pitch and two jackets as a goal. Oh, the shouts that rang out through the evening air, the ball, heavy and slippery or dry and light with the bladder showing between the leather laces. … Autumn in the rain, winter in the snow, spring in the mud, summer in the heat: football, football, football.” For Ekelund—romantic and world traveler—surviving cancer inspired a renewed appreciation for first-hand experience. Not only did he travel to Brazil to live with the World Cup spectacle, he brought his gear too, and managed to make his way into pick-up games along the Copacabana. At sixty he was (by his own estimation) not out of place, escaping defenders and netting the occasional screamer. “The magic of feeling the ball at your feet,” he writes, “has always been greater than the experience of the spectator, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been deeply passionate when occupying the role of a fan as well.”
Most of us are destined for the same role, despite our youthful ambitions of collecting a sizeable paycheck to kick a ball. But unfulfilled dreams can’t erase the memories Knausgaard relays of carefree childhood joy—the feeling of “being somewhere else apart from yourself inside yourself.” “Playing football” for Knausgaard, was always “like being somewhere, it was like your own world inside a world, with its own rules, where I was happy”; an out-of-body experience you have with your own flesh and blood. Until, as Knausgaard discovered in his adolescent years, “not being good at football suddenly [gets] in the way.” And with that, punk rock, cigarettes, alcohol and women replaced the desire he once had for time on the field. What was left in this new phase of athletic disembodiment was the life of a fan.
For reasons I can’t fully explain, during high school soccer was a far more formative a part of my life than booze, cigarettes or women. Instead of going on dates I went to tournaments. Instead of drinking beer I trained with the ball in my backyard. Instead of smoking I ran for miles on the local high school track. As a college athlete I played through my early twenties, longer than most of my European and Latin American peers who don’t receive pro contracts in their late teens. But even if America’s college athletic system allowed me to play a few more years, like them, my not being good at soccer suddenly got in the way. Where a select few went on to play professionally, my path forward would be limited to coaching and training (which I’ve happily done for the last fourteen years), and like Ekelund and Knausgaard, to the life of a fan.
One of the most surprising discoveries in Home and Away was how similar the fan experience of these two Europeans was to my own. Americans tend to assume that the ubiquity of football is part of the European cultural fabric, a pastime that for countless generations has shaped weekends and small talk and been exhibited triumphantly across headlines and on TV screens. But as Knausgaard and Ekelund’s exchange reveals, “in the ’70s, football wasn’t as commercial as it is now, it wasn’t as big, it wasn’t something everyone did or followed.” There was the occasional match broadcast from the English First Division, or a European Cup tie, or a national team match. But for the most part, the only way to experience the game—even through most of the Eighties and Nineties—was to make your way to the local club and watch it in person. For Knausgaard it was watching IK Start at the Kristiansand Stadion. For Ekelund it was watching FF Malmö at the Malmö Stadion. For me it was the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Engelmann Field. Without the luxury of watching the game on TV, our respective imaginations were relocated from the cloister of our living rooms to a sanctuary of sport.
In my case, the arena was framed on all sides by large university buildings and the city itself. To say it produced magical childhood memories would be an understatement. It was the early Nineties, and we didn’t have the faintest care for the fact that soccer was a marginal sport. Nor did we have the faintest idea that some of the players we were watching would eventually move from playing in the humble college ranks to foreign clubs (one of them would outduel Portuguese legend, Luis Figo, in the 2002 World Cup). We just knew that when we were at Engelmann field, watching the Panthers, we were happy. And because we didn’t have teams like Liverpool, Flamengo, Athletico Madrid, Boca Juniors, 1860 München, Ajax, or Santos to cheer for, we hardly knew the difference. Like soccer in America at the time, for the most part we were innocent.
All that has changed. Where there was once a desperate hunger to see more of the game and study its history, now we see it all the time and everyone seems to be an expert. Where there was once a belief that we would never amount to anything, we have flirted (in the 2002 World Cup, 2009 Confederations Cup and 2016 Copa America) with actually achieving everything. For a soccer nation that has only been taking the men’s game seriously for the better part of forty years our accomplishments are, in fact, staggering. So much so that in one of Ekelund’s letters to Knausgaard he shudders at the potential shown by United States in the 2014 tournament. When U.S. managed to qualify for the knockout stage after (thanks to the results of other teams) a 1-0 loss to Germany, he was surprised to note the disappointment of the fans and players. “They were through to the last sixteen but instead of being thrilled they were furious at having lost—against Germany! That, Karl Ove, is a testament to their self-confidence and morale.” “The footballing map has been redrawn,” Ekelund warns, “and the USA … are one of the teams holding the pen and the ruler.”
When I read these lines last summer they sent chills down my spine. Only months later the United States—at the end of a turbulent qualifying campaign and the sacking of Euro-Messiah-manager, Jürgen Klinsmann—failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Their fate was sealed in October by a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, in a match they were expected to win comfortably. Immediately the nagging insecurities returned. A chorus of American soccer pseudo-intellectuals flooded social media with a glut of emotional non-sequiturs. Revered pundits and retired American players took to SI.com, Fox, and ESPN to launch incoherent tirades at those they held responsible for this embarrassing and supposedly preventable fiasco. For the most part, the American soccer-commentariat’s handling of a loss to Trinidad unwittingly confirmed Knausgaard’s ironic observation in Home and Away that “writing about football is nonsense.” In America’s paper of record, sports essayist Brian Phillips employed his own drain-the-swamp rhetoric to address an existential crisis within our national team, “permanently on the threshold of success it never quite reaches, as if it’s built to thrive on medium-size stages but fizzle on large ones.” Instead of carefully crafted talking points from carefully monitored federation figureheads, Phillips said that U.S. Soccer was most in need of a jackhammer.
I have no data to support this claim, but it does feel like Americans, as a group, are more likely to respond to disappointment and pain with chest thumping bravado than to work through it with humility and dexterity. It’s much easier to point fingers at an individual or organizational calamity than it is to take a careful look in the mirror. As Knausgaard writes in Home and Away, “the World Cup is a theater, it is the arena of great feelings, the anguish of being knocked out, the euphoria of winning, and every other feeling in between.” In fairness to writers like Phillips, watching our national team fail to qualify last fall was painful. But is America such an exceptional place that we deserve any better than Costa Rica, Panama or Mexico, who qualified from our region? And is our national failure any different than those of countries like Italy (2006 World Cup Champions), Chile (2016 Copa America champions, and the Netherlands (third place at the 2014 World Cup), all of whom failed to qualify for this year’s tournament?
For Knausgaard (a Norwegian, whose national team has appeared in three World Cups, total), “the feelings football arouses are an imitation” of the “collective grief” we universally confront as individuals and members of larger communities. Because his and Ekelund’s literary sensibilities are as central to their identities as their love of football, Home and Away can quickly jump from Messi to Molière, Zidane to Zola (Emilé as much as Gianfranco), and Bakhtin to Bebeto. Occasionally the game fades from their correspondence and we’re treated to moments that are more likely to be found in a university lecture hall than emails about the World Cup. In one of those emails, Knausgaard voices what I take to be a therapeutic insight rooted in his vocation as a novelist, but applicable to the very purpose of sport: “I don’t know of any other reasons for writing,” he says, “other than it heals, is healing.”
Though Ekelund’s belief that America is redrawing the footballing map may not be a healing consolation, I actually think he’s right. Separate from being awarded the principal hosting responsibilities for the 2026 World Cup, I tend to believe that the U.S. men’s national team will continue to solidify their global presence as a contender in major competitions. I also think that in my lifetime they will have eclipsed many of their European and South American counterparts. Undoubtedly, if they do it won’t be without further struggles, near misses and probably some failures (Spain competed in twelve World Cups over a span of 76 years before they made it to a final and won). But considering the hyper-commercialized and verifiably corrupt landscape of international football, sometimes I wonder whether or not I even want the United States to become a perennial men’s power. In watching my first World Cup without their presence, what’s become crystal clear is that past insecurities about measuring up to foreign competition are long gone. I’m also not too worried about embarrassments that may be on the horizon. Instead, more and more, I find myself thinking about what it means to cherish and even protect that joyful place where the game is simply a ball, a pitch, two jackets and a goal.