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Andrei Markovits

Andrei Markovits

Posted: June 15, 2010 11:08 AM

An American Game

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By Andrei S. Markovits and Lars Rensmann

In case you haven't noticed, there is an authentic soccer culture in America. Team USA's performance against England showed once more that American teams, and the soccer culture they represent, can compete with the best of the world. The skills that these players display have emerged from a genuine, independent soccer tradition that has evolved in this country over the past two-to-three decades. Yet, many in America and abroad still claim that American soccer is somehow inauthentic. This slight starts with language and its usage. We have once again noticed in many public forums devoted to the games (be it on the Internet or in pubs and bars) a peculiar American penchant which we find at best unnecessary, at worst counterproductive: a noticeable irritation on part of some self-perceived soccer purists to resist any alleged Americanization of the quotidian language used in connection with the game which these purists somehow find as diminishing the game's validity or -- worse -- undermining its very identity.

Let us start with the persistence not to accept the word "soccer" and insisting on calling it "football." We find insistence on this counterproductive because it bespeaks a desired showdown with that other football -- that "false" and "imposter" football -- which for reasons of history emerged as the sole game in America to be understood as "football" by the vast majority of the population. There is nothing evil in this, nothing devious, it hails merely from a historical development that created a situation where in all English-speaking countries the term "football," with no qualifying adjectives preceding it, denotes the most popular code of the many footballs that continue to exist in this world. Thus, for Australians in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania the term "football" connotes the dominant Australian Rules Football, while for their compatriots in New South Wales and Queensland "football" means the Rugby League code. Across the Tasman Sea, it means predominantly the Rugby Union version, as it probably still does for many whites in South Africa. And in all three of these countries, it is patently evident that the vast majority of the population refers to the Association game as "soccer," not "football" despite some recent but apparently futile efforts by the high-brow media and broadsheets to start calling the game "football." Simply put, the term "soccer" emerged as the signifier of the Association code of football in all English-speaking places where other football codes became culturally hegemonic roughly between 1870 and 1930. To wit, the Australian national team is called the "Socceroos" and the new football stadium complex in Johannesburg has been named "Soccer City."

Since these purists distance themselves from anything that they view as an American -- thus to them illegitimate and inauthentic -- terminology relating to the game, they should actually embrace wholeheartedly the term "soccer" instead of dismissing it so contemptuously since the word represents 19th century English student slang for "association." And let us not even mention the venom and downright abuse with which we have witnessed folks being reprimanded for using the term "PK" in lieu of the "proper" term "penalty." The same pertains to "fixture" and "pitch" and "nil" and many of the other perfectly wonderful terms used in British culture.

Had soccer emerged from anywhere else but another English-speaking culture, we would have created our own American terminology for it without any of the repercussions and reprimands that we continue to experience. After all, the game's original English terms were translated into (as well as adopted and adapted by) all of the world's languages which produced words of their own without in any way thereby sullying the game and/or diminishing its authenticity and identity.

One of us is German, the other an American with European roots -- and both of us have loved and admired English football for decades. But we firmly believe that with American soccer now for the first time really being on the verge of becoming more than a quadrennial event-driven World Cup phenomenon, and quite possibly a genuine cultural force, it is high time to stop counterproductive battles over the authenticity of this term as opposed to another and instead fully welcome and embrace the game with its American voice. Trying to pry the word "football" away from its American variant with which it has been completely identified for well over a century by a vast majority of American sports fans and the general population, and claiming it for the "real" football, constitutes not only a losing battle but one that we deem totally unnecessary, perhaps even detrimental, to soccer's long-term success in the United States.

The authors teach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and have just published Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture (Princeton University Press)