Saturday, March 26, 2011

On patriotism and USA soccer fandom

So I've never put on an american flag poncho, unlike formidable patriot Kid Rock. I've probably never bought a flag in my lifetime. The only times I remember donning patriotic apparel or chanting things like "U-S-A," are when I get riled up to see the USMNT (United States Men's National Team) play. This could be part of a larger series about patriotism in general, but I mainly mean to address sports today.

I own two USA shirts, one is a jersey and the other a vintage T from the '84 olympics in L.A., but I wonder: does this make me a minority in my country? I wonder how many patriotic articles of clothing my peers own. I wonder if they're ever worn, additionally. Part of me thinks there must be something wrong with that, but I'm also fairly certain that I'd fall on the "more patriotic clothing" side of the divide.

When standing for sporting events to honor the flag I feel strange. Two equally powerful thoughts run through my mind simultaneously: 1) Honor the fallen soldiers. Do it. Just think about them. Think about the suffering and how they contributed to your freedom, Aaron. It might not make a lot of sense, but just stand there and THINK. Think think think and think. Thank them from the inside of your brain. .....There. See? Easy. 2) You are opposed to war, so think about what the country means to you in other ways. Think about how hard life would be elsewhere, or something. Yeah, think about that. Get all of the cerebral frustrations out of the way and just think that this place is great. Think it!

You see, I have some misgivings when it comes to being proud of my country, yet I'll turn out for any USMNT match with a flag-bandana around my neck and a redwhiteandblue jersey across my chest.

In my time in Spain and the rest of Europe, I learned to speak Spanish first, even in the middle of Belgium where it was certain no one spoke the language, just to distance myself from the hailstorm of incursions and assumptions against me that were often the result of realizing they were speaking with an american. The man who yelled "Bush is Hitler!!" two inches from my face didn't alter my already dissatisfied view of our president at the time, but he did make me wish I were Canadian, if only for the normal conversation we would instead be having.

All foreign experiences aside, when I consider how much I care about the USMNT, I am reminded that my passion has grown because of the USMNT's underdog status. As americans, we're underdogs in almost nothing. How unexciting does the olympic medal count become when we continue to sit atop it? Isn't it more of a story when we aren't leading the standings? To reduce my/our patriotism or lack thereof to sports would be foolish, though. The reality is, for decades we have sat on top of the leader board of the world as well. Since Britain began to fade as a world power after WWI, it's been the U-S-A's party to reign over.

My lifetime has been an experience of this hegemony, and the centrality of my country on the world scene has only slightly shifted. Things may be changing little by little, but that is beside the point: everyone loves an underdog. My country hasn't been an underdog since I've been alive - neither in the sporting sense nor the political/socio-economic sense. The USMNT is one of few (and probably permanent) refuges for the underdog lovers in this country. There's just not as much joy in watching your country's teams accomplish what they should be able to accomplish at the olympics when compared to watching Landon Donovan bury the loose ball in extra time against Algeria at the World Cup. If we were once a nation that claimed the underdog spirit as a fixture of the american way (i'm thinking the Revolutionary War here), that spirit has long dissipated in almost every international arena but soccer.

So tonight I'll go wearing my shirt to watch the USMNT play Argentina, no longer wondering why I only bear these colors for this particular event: the spirit of the underdog still lives.