The World Cup is always filled with drama. Most of the time it happens on the field. It also usually happens between players, coaches and other people involved in soccer in some way. As the United States Women’s National Team prepares to take on France, host nation and one of the other favorites to win the cup, the biggest drama coming from France has almost nothing to do with France, the World Cup or soccer at all. Many more eyes and ears have become focused on the World Cup because of the comments made by Megan Rapinoe and Donald Trump. Since most news outlets have latched onto the story, I won’t repeat it here. This clash has sprung out of the fact that even though the two seem to have nothing in common, they both like the spotlight. So how can we use all of the light that’s been shone onto this situation? Remember that freedom is responsibility.
In so many ways, freedom has become fashioned into a thought process that “I can do what I want.” While there is some truth to that statement it glosses over one of the inherent costs of freedom. “I need to let other people do what they want, even when it diametrically opposes what I believe is right.” Embracing freedom is easy when it is your own, it becomes difficult when it belongs to others.
So as the lights are focused on these two characters that represent very different factions of our country, my hope is that one or both of them remembers their responsibility. They both represent this country on an international stage and they have the opportunity to exercise their freedom of speech and action for the betterment of themselves OR the people who are watching. This is not Reagan imploring Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. It is a professional athlete who represents several ideals like equality in compensation, LGTBQ rights and racial equality and a president who has promised to “Make America Great Again”.
During their moment in the spotlight together, what will each of them do? Will they choose the spotlight and the clicks or will they choose the responsibility of their freedom? Rapinoe can turn that light from herself “not going to the White House” and shine it directly onto the people that she represents and their stories/struggles. The President could equally use the bright lights of this situation to address those same people and help “Make America Great” for them because Again excludes them. America was not great for women, LGTBQ or minorities in the past.
Both people have the freedom that this country affords them. My hope is that they take the responsibility seriously and see that it is not about them. It’s about us. The US may win or lose today against France. The question is can we find a way to win as a country in our daily lives? Or have we become so enamored with our own freedom that we no longer recognize the freedom of others? Republican, democrat, black, white, brown, green, woman, man, transgender, gay, straight….. at a certain point we need to figure out how to be neighbors and make America great! Even if it is for the first time for everyone.
The Women’s World Cup has been a roller coaster ride from the beginning. Although I support the US Women’s National Team, I am much more interested in the women’s game growing and being accepted in its own right worldwide. Most of the results have been in line with expectation. However the results are not all that matters. Even though there are more games to be played, this World Cup is sending messages. Some of them need to be heard and emulated, others need to be learned from then possibly forgotten. Regardless, I thought it was worth the time to recap some of the biggest beats so far.
Lone voices aren’t loud – The absence of one of the best players in the world has largely gone unnoticed. Norway has performed relatively well without their Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg. Her decision to stay out of the Norwegian National Team was a mild source of intrigue but in the end has been overtaken by other story lines. There is just too much happening in a World Cup that the absence of one person is going to invoke great change. If the World Cup is the best platform for female athletes to make a statement (and I believe that it is), then it requires a much more evident and pervasive stance. Perhaps all of the teams deciding, they are not going to play for the first minute of each game because they want to make a statement about inequality. Instead of kicking of an internationally televised game exactly when the whistle blows, a minute, thirty seconds, ten seconds is taken for all of the players to stand together against a common foe of inequality.
Objectively Subjective – Although it has people behind it, one of the loudest voices of the tournament has no voice at all. VAR has all but taken over a tournament that is supposed to be about human beings playing and interpreting the beautiful game. Unfortunately in an effort to “get it right”, it’s all gone wrong. The games have largely been robbed of the emotion of the moment. Referees without VAR get things wrong (and obviously with VAR things still go wrong). Based on what I’ve seen from this World Cup, I’m much less worried about the getting the call “right” as I am the referee doing her/his best to endeavor to make the “right” call. Human error is part of the process but two minute discussions over earphones about a possible infraction have not improved the game, they’ve cheapened it. This is largely the reason that I’ve not watched a NFL game in four years. The game has been taken away from the humans, so they defer, rather than decide.
Entitlement Doesn’t Lead to Titles – As a fan of the USWNT, it pained me to watch the match against Spain. In an almost Rocky IV type moment, I felt myself almost wanting for Spain to win. This was not me renouncing my citizenship. It was the simple fact that I saw more instances of pride producing behavior from the Spanish team. As a fan, pride is one of the emotions that we rely upon to continue our association with a team. When we are no longer proud to support our team, there is little point in being a fan. The Spanish team had a plan and they executed it well. The US didn’t and didn’t. At a variety of moments, it seemed as though the US were waiting for Spain to give up. Rapinoe and Morgan seemed to want the referee to be the one to help them past the defenders. Expectations of calls for any contact were fully on display. Although some of Spain’s tackles were reckless, the general feeling that I got was that they were actually trying to win the game through skill and hard work rather than reputation. My hope is that this was a blip on the radar screen but I am fearful that we are more show than GO!
One last word before she leaves – In one of the most shareable moments of the World Cup, Marta exited the tournament by laying down the gauntlet to the future of the sport. Although the message was intended toward young Brazilian girls, it is a strong message for anyone. The heroines or heroes that we esteem so heavily will not always be there for us to adore. Someone, maybe you, needs to pick up where they left off or possibly challenge for their spot. It is not going to be easy. As Marta put it, you need to cry before you can smile. The picture needs to be painted over and over again that the exceptional do not get there by chance or in born talent. There is work that no one sees and most people fear but if you want to get to the highest levels, you need to embrace.
So even though it is not over, there is so much to take from the World Cup so far. It is one of the reasons why I love soccer so much. The result is only part of the story. Stats and scores can only tell you so much. The experience of the 90 (+7 COME ON! VAR!) minutes is necessary to tell a story about the people that are trying to get that result. Their stories run parallel to our stories and allow us to live more fervently because it resonates around the world!
In 1998 I spent almost a month in Europe with my best friend, Schaef, attending the World Cup. When you think of life experiences, it really doesn’t get much better than that. Spending a month engrossed in the thing that you love the most with one of the people that you love the most. It truly was an amazing trip but when it was over he and I didn’t speak for almost two months. The experience of that trip has helped me in a variety of ways, one of which I’ll share here.
The trip was planned extremely well by my friend. He was the planner and I played the role of translator because I spoke both Spanish and French. We flew into London and saw the sites there briefly. Our main focus was the games. So site seeing was kind of a fast paced game. We tried to see as much as possible in the smallest amount of time possible. Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, etc. were all done in a day and at a quick clip.
Then we took trains down to Barcelona where we spent a few days touring and watching games in the afternoon. Again, the Olympic Village, La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s buildings and all were seen but not studied as we had to block out times for the matches which were almost social events along Las Ramblas. Unfortunately Schaef lost his passport on our second to last day there. For that story, CLICK HERE.
Our next stop was Paris. There was of course the visit to the US Embassy in Paris to get a new passport which took longer than we would have liked. After getting it we had to rush to pick up our tickets to the five games that we were going to attend. Our first match was Germany vs USA. Despite both being American we were following Germany through the group stage. The most memorable thing from following Germany for me was the warm-up. Watching Jurgen Klinsmann get crossed balls for him to side volley from head height was amazing. He was obviously a world class player honing his craft and I loved seeing it up close. In addition to that match, we saw the Louvre in less than 2 hours. Art lovers we are not! Next was Germany vs Yugoslavia which was in Lens, a much smaller venue and not much around.
We fit in a quick trip to Munich Germany to experience Schaef’s heritage. This was the first time that I felt like we needed some space. I didn’t speak German but I felt there was an expectation that I was still on translation duty. I learned quickly how to say “Zwei biere, zwei pretz” (two beers and two pretzels) which was about all we needed to survive. That feeling of unnecessary expectation faded quickly because we were back on the road to Montpelier to see our final group stage match, Germany vs Iran, which ended with Germany winning the Group. Montpelier was also the first place that we were able to kick a soccer ball around. We met a girl from Chicago who got her brother to lend us a ball. Her father’s only directions were “don’t pop it”. Now I’ve never popped a soccer ball before in my life. But sure enough, the very last kick of the ball took a weird bounce hit this tree with spikes on it and POP! We felt so bad for the kid, I think we gave him around $140 in Francs to replace it. At this point, the togetherness was getting difficult. I even started smoking cigars on a daily basis just to get away for a bit.
Our final day of matches was filled with drama both on and off the field. We went to the knockout stage match in Lens between France and Paraguay which Les Bleus won in overtime. This was inconvenient for us because we had another match to attend in Paris that night and OT almost made us late. On top of that we had to navigate around riot police due to an altercation that happened during the match outside the stadium. Despite the difficult circumstances we got onto a fully packed train back to Paris. Denmark beat Nigeria handily that night.
We traveled back to England in order to catch our flight home. At this point, we have not had one argument or negative word said but we don’t speak much on the flight. The next day we part ways and don’t talk for about two months. Eventually we pick right back up in a good spot but we obviously needed some time apart.
This experience taught me so many things about relationships but the two main ones were: most upsets come from a mismatch of expectations and no matter how much you love someone, space is necessary at times. These both came into play in the best possible circumstances.
On a daily basis, we are not dealing with the best possible circumstances but we are cultivating our most important relationship. Each and every day we are in the closest possible contact with our key associate: the self. Although it may seem odd to apply the same concepts to an internal relation as an external but they can be used to good effect.
First the mismatch of expectations with who you think that you are or should be is a common cause of upset. We have a narrative about who we are inside of our head. Some of it is conscious and other parts unconscious but when our external environment fails to meet our expectations of who we are, it creates issues. Those issues can manifest in a variety of ways but the underlying problem is that our life does not match our expectations. One way to combat this is actually create a definitive description of who you expect yourself to be on a daily basis. Not the “best case scenario” or “ideal self” but rather standard operating procedure or bare minimums description. This way you are setting yourself up for success. Exceeding these expectations will be a gold star to shoot for but at least you have a definition of who you will accept going out into the world each day.
The second is slightly more complicated because getting distance from yourself can seem difficult. I’m obviously not talking about physical distance but rather psychological distance. The daily opportunity that we have for this space is sleep. I truly believe that people who do not sleep well have a more complicated internal life because they are caught up too directly in their own story. The inability to take a break from being puts additional stress onto the relationship with the self. Other forms of psychological space from the self are meditation and exercise. These can both be extremely effective provided that they can be done without intense focus on “results”. Using these tools to take a mental vacation will have great effects provided that the vacation is not turned into a business trip.
So recognize that you’re on a lifelong trip, living out of a purse sized “bag”, with the same person that you cannot get rid of. It would make sense for you to make them a friend, possibly your best friend. In order to make it work though, you’re going to need to set expectations and give each other space. Otherwise you could end up hating the person inside your head and that seems like a bad way to spend this great trip that you’re on.
There are some things that are just NOT done in polite American society! You don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant. You don’t talk politics with your in-laws. You don’t talk about money in mixed company. And if you’re an American soccer fan, you don’t agree with Alexi Lalas! I am about to break that last social norm. Alexi gave a description of the apples to oranges comparison of US Soccer’s failings to the successes of Croatia and Iceland. I totally agree. The component pieces of the soccer landscapes and national culture in each country are so completely disparate that comparison is a fool’s errand that is at best click bate and at worst sophisticated soccer tail chasing. So let’s take the American soccer “watermelon*” and inspect it on its own merit to see where we’re going.
First of all, let’s take the population discussion completely off the table because it is irrelevant on many levels. Only 2 countries in the top 20 by population have won a World Cup (Brazil and Germany). Of that same top 20, nine nations have never qualified for a World Cup. If more people was the answer, China and India would be in the final every four years. The fact that the US is larger than another country does not indicate that it should be more likely to win (or perform well) at the World Cup. So it is much more complicated than that.
The story of the nations that have won at least one or even multiple World Cups comes down to a convergence of many factors but probably the most crucial is a soccer (football) culture. The nations that have been able to win or compete well at World Cups all have a culture that supports and/or increases their success on the field. Culture, in very general terms, can be characterized by the statement “People like us, do things like this.” So in those high performing soccer nations, people do several things that perpetuate the high level of play or induce improvement. Generally speaking this is not a top down process. Culture is a product of many little decisions made by thousands or millions of individuals, not a handful of powerful individuals making decisions. So if World Cup success is in the future for the United States, it will follow the adoption of a soccer culture, not create one.
So even though the size of Iceland does not matter, the fact that so many Icelandic people do the Viking clap does. It sends a message to every single player on the team and child who is adopting the game. The message is “This matters to us!” That message changes the daily actions of people. Given the choice between extra ball work or not, players in those environments recognize that something important is at stake.
With that understanding well established, I will go back to the title. If the USMNT doesn’t win the World Cup in/by 2026, it’s my fault! This statement may seem crazy to some but if you’ve been paying attention it becomes plainly obvious. Culture is created by individual decisions made by the masses. It’s on ME! And YOU! And everyone else attached to this game in the US. No longer can we hope that copying Barcelona drills or hiring English trainers or attending foreign friendlies on their summer tours is enough. Every one of us that considers ourselves a part of soccer in the US needs to up their game. What does that mean?
It means action by the many. In some ways this endeavor is truly in line with American culture (of the past at least). It is almost inherently American to identify a challenge and conquer it. For most of our country’s history, that was almost common place. We (the people) took on monumental tasks as a collective. Unfortunately we seem to be at a point in history where we expect other people to do it for us. We can outsource it or it’s the government, corporation or system’s fault that things aren’t going right. The problem lies with someone else or it’s just too hard and I can’t be bothered. FUCK THAT!!! We need to step up for the next eight years! Not in some grandiose, out of reach way but in simple ways that can have a cumulative effect. The main thing that will be required is a long term view. So here are some of my suggestions based on a variety of perspectives. It’s by no means a complete list but it’s a start. Add your own thoughts in the comments.
Watch MLS games – More eyes = more dollars = better players = better league = better US player pool. If you watch the EPL or la Liga but don’t watch MLS, you need to start. I know that MLS is not as good as the top leagues at the moment. However if we don’t pay attention now, it won’t have the monetary resources to get better.
Focus on players getting better – If you’re a parent, coach, or associated with youth soccer in any other way; put progress of the player over the result on the day. This is so extremely difficult for people to embrace because the desire for status is so hardwired into our minds. One of the reasons that we continue to struggle on the international stage is that we are enamored with being the biggest fish in the small pond.
Be active – There are all kinds of ways that the US soccer culture could improve but it needs people to do. Passivity is only going to perpetuate mediocrity. Let your voice be heard, your actions be seen and your passion be felt. You matter in this endeavor.
As you finish up reading this article, I hope that you have a small inkling of the feeling that I have. It’s only a matter of time before the US wins a World Cup. Soccer is no longer the game for everyone else but US. The momentum of the sport in this country is well on its way but now it needs our help to reach escape velocity. To overcome the inertia of ambivalence and low expectations, WE all must do our small part to reach the highest of heights. But there are no guarantees. WE must bet on the fact that together it will be enough. And if it’s not! IT’S MY FAULT!
*I’ve chosen a watermelon because it is my favorite fruit. It’s also large but lacks overpowering flavor and its seeds are possibly potent but they are often discarded or made to disappear before they can materialize.
I have often wondered what history lessons are like in Germany about the period between 1900-1950. From an outside perspective it is easy to characterize Germany as the villain of that epoch. Is it viewed as period of shame? Or glossed over as unfortunate past events? Often people and nations have a hard time seeing themselves as others would see them. When looking at others, it is easier to make judgment that we believe is right. We can see their faults, shortcomings, idiosyncrasies and failures. Or we laud their beauty, strength, courage or “perfection”. Self-reflection is usually skewed in either a positive or negative direction. People, just like nations, have a history that they must reconcile in order to move forward. Recently upon thinking of Germany’s past and looking in the mirror, I reflected on what nation I represent.
At first I though Switzerland, a neutral state that is willing to keep the currency of others in secrecy. It had some possibility but fell short. Then I considered my ancestral homeland of Poland. It has been overrun by many others and despite almost disappearing at certain points, it keeps coming back with resilience. This would be nice and comfortable for me but unfortunately it’s not true.
Unfortunately I’m France. Man, it pisses me off to write that! There are many things to love about me but I give off an air of aloofness that puts people off. At times, I’ve let my enemies take parts of me without much of a fight and needed the support of close friends to make me whole again. I can be characterized as lazy but generally I work to live, not the other way around. My reputation for being standoffish is justifiable but also location based. If you truly want to get to know me, don’t do it where the crowds are. I’m much better off the beaten path and rich in areas that you didn’t know were there.
What country are you? Please don’t search Facebook for a quiz that tells! Figure out that story for yourself. If you don’t like what you’ve found (as I don’t), then make the necessary adjustment. Despite being France, I can change my actions and therefore my story about who I am. You can too. Just because you were beaten, trampled, torn apart and considered unworthy in the past, does not mean that your history needs to continue on that path. Your history cannot predict your future, unless you let it!