To put Wednesday's great U.S. World Cup win in some context, let's just mull for a minute what would have happened if Landon Donovan's stoppage-time shot against Algeria had instead sailed wide or high: We Americans would have been out of the tournament, and the vast majority of general sports fans in the U.S. would have been bitter and disgusted with the lack of transparency and accountability in World Cup officiating and more than a few, I'm sure, would have wondered if some kind of poisonous, complicated anti-American bias or bigotry was behind the ludicrously waved off goal in the game against Slovenia AND the dubiously waved off goal earlier against Algeria. So far, ESPN has been reporting stunning increases in ratings for the World Cup, but there's no question a large chunk of the American sports audience would have tuned out anything that happened on the pitch in South Africa following a U.S. ouster that felt dirty and wrong.
Instead, large numbers of people from coast to coast are excited and fascinated. That not only means this next game against Ghana will suddenly reach a profile previously unknown for soccer in the U.S., but also that far more Americans will be paying attention to other games in the tournament. We will in short be one country among many, part of the fun, part of the celebration, instead of sulking off. And unlike in the Olympics, the Americans seem to be popular with fans in other countries. Here in Berlin, where I live, the announcers talk in German about the American "fighting spirit" with what sounds like real wonder and curiosity.
I think these developments are huge - and I write that not just as a sports fan, who learned to play soccer in my teens in San Jose, California, playing with Mexican-Americans who taught me my first Spanish, not just as a fan of the San Jose Earthquakes back in the '70s, and not just as a former sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle, but also as someone who lives in Europe and writes regularly on international relations and believes it's a good thing when Americans connect with people in other countries.
I think the World Cup in many ways offers the best decoder ring to explaining the European Union experiment to outsiders, especially Americans. I still can't figure out why, but American expressions of national pride tend to sound heavy-handed and coarse to others. My friend Jeff Z. Klein at the New York Times put together a classic post, showing clips of fan reactions to the win all over the country - and the chants of "U.S.A." to my ear, at least here in Germany, sounded happy and joyous, of course, but also with a kind of growling heavy-handedness. Listen for yourself. I especially liked the video from Oakland, by the way. I'm not knocking anyone's joy. I feel it too! Just musing on why American sports celebrations sound somehow different.
Americans in general pay little attention to Europe, thinking of it as somewhere to visit when you're old or a college kid, or simply thinking of it as old news (crazy Don Rumsfeld's "Old Europe"). But in fact Europe offers useful hints to the U.S. in how to go about living in the international family of nations with, on the one hand, a sure sense of yourself, national pride, national dignity, but not shouting that out so loud that it sounds like you're trying to drown out the joyful cries of other nations.
If this sounds vaporous, I can give a concrete example: The U.S. and German governments have a big disagreement right now on how to handle the continuing world financial crisis. This is fine. As it happens, I think the Germans (and the British) are right: They don't believe that running up more massive debt right now to try to stimulate the economy is the answer, no matter how much Paul Krugman, the New York Times editorial page or President Obama tell them that it is, often viciously, often in complete ignorance of both German law and German political realities. (As I wrote this week in my weekly column for the Berliner Zeitung, Merkel could as well move to change the colors on the German flag as she could move to change the deeply, DEEPLY ingrained German compulsion to save and be financially responsible.)
Cannot such discussions occur with a modicum of respect for other views? Obama the candidate came all the way here to Berlin to deliver a speech in front of 200,000 people (including me), but as president has formed no close relationships with any European leaders, including Merkel. But when it comes to arguing for the U.S. approach (borrow more from the Chinese! let our kids pay!), a shrillness comes into play.
I would submit that the World Cup provides an opportunity for Americans to shed some of the baggage of its global super power status and instead just be one of the guys. I hope Obama watches various games in the tournament and can talk about it with Merkel and other leaders when they all gather for the G20 meeting this coming weekend in Canada. Hey, it's going to be tense, that's for sure, and anything to break the ice has to help.
Now, if Donovan and his teammates can just keep the fun going for, oh, at least two more wins' worth, Americans just might hear my chants of "U.S.A.," here in Berlin, from across the Atlantic.