Yesterday, as the United States struggled to hold on to its 1-0 lead against Ghana, the rumblings on social media grew: Ghana were surely due to equalize any moment now. When they did, the jubilation on Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds was palpable. But it wasn’t just Ghanaian fans that were cheering for that 1-1 scoreline. Plenty of Americans were too. And these folks, identified quite easily by their previous histories of publicly avowed political sentiments, were clearly of the leftist political persuasion. A few minutes later, John Brooks cast a pall over them. But not for long: some looked forward to the American team getting its comeuppance later, perhaps against Germany or Portugal.
There are few sports in which American sports teams are underdogs. Soccer is one of them. But America isn’t much of an underdog in any other domain or dimension. So for those who like to cheer for underdogs, cheering for America is a highly unnatural act–and so they won’t, even if it means supporting Germany or Portugal, two soccer powerhouses.
The leftist cheering against the American soccer team is motivated by something a little more visceral: a desire to not be on the side of those visibly cheering for the American team. Many American fans, like those from other countries, drape themselves in their nation’s flag–in various forms, sometimes shirts, sometimes bandannas, sometimes something else–and raise loud slogans and sing tuneless songs. The semiotics of the American flag and the American chant are quite complicated for this seemingly anti-American demographic.
The American flag–thanks to the complicated history of American imperial ambitions and its modern incarnations–is a loaded symbol; in the domestic political context it has often to come to represent a forced, unambiguous American identity, one that all must pledge allegiance to, a quasi-religious icon that cannot be desecrated. And the most common American chant–USA! USA! USA!–has, in this post-911 era, come to represent an aggressive proclamation of American triumphalism. (You can hear it in the background as George W. Bush speaks at the site of the Twin Towers and promises revenge; you could hear it on the day he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium that same season.)
I don’t think those cheering against the American soccer team have anything against the likes of Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore and their mates. The American team is, as befitting an American grouping, quite diverse: players of mixed racial parentage, of immigrant backgrounds, drawn from a variety of social and cultural settings. The American team plays a hybrid style all its own, and its many players entertain, in the US’ professional soccer league, crowds that are increasingly eclectic in their economic and ethnic makeup. But when an international tournament is underway, the American team does duty for the nation, and they are often cheered on by those who seemingly would like to see yet another domain fall to the inexorable march of the American juggernaut. An American win–it is feared by those Americans who would cheer against their national team–would merely spark another orgy of self-congratulatory exceptionalism. Better to root against it–to ward off such unpleasantness.
Note: I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in. The US might be a soccer underdog, but its team does not seem to be lacking in resources.