When soccer doesn’t explain the world

The pitfalls of drilling for meaning in a soccer match

(Marwan Shousher)

Soccer is both good and galling because of its metaphorical potential. Any match can easily come to represent its surrounding events. It can just as easily be a metaphor for war—attacking the enemy lines—or peace: Rivals sharing a field! In that way, writing about soccer is almost always writing about something else. This flexibility is appealing insofar as it keeps the sport relevant. But it also profoundly unsatisfying: Sometimes you can feel the metaphor coming before the game has even happened. The gears hum indistinctly in the back of your head so that it aches before the opening whistle.

By the by, the US men’s national team plays Mexico in Columbus this Friday. If you have justifiably spent the week in a nuclear fallout bunker, Friday is just a few short days after the election of wall fetishist Donald Trump as president of the United States. Of course it is this Friday. How perfect: an actual clash between representations of Mexican and American nationalism after eighteen months of figurative versions. Nobody would believe you if you made this detail up, but reality can get away with being on the nose. The timing is also perfect in the way one mutters the word after something has gone wrong at the end of an already-awful day. The match is both apt and an eye-roll.

How many functions can a single match serve? Can it simultaneously advance narratives of peace and anger? Can it satisfy different conceptions of catharsis? Can it be at once a portrait of unity and a symbol of our limitations? Can a significant match both happen for those that need it and not for those who don’t?

The problem for USA-Mexico—one of many, granted—is that it is being tasked with all of those functions by different people. A win could just as easily be a salve or cloying. I’m not here to make the trite case for understanding every viewpoint imaginable after an election—there are limits to what can and should be understood—but it’s worth recognizing that a multiplicity of entirely valid reactions exist. One can either be motivated to get to work or emotionally exhausted and need a break. Soccer can accommodate all manner of contradictions—just look at the career of Jozy Altidore—but this might be its limit.

Ok, sure.

The silence is deafening. US Soccer has spent the last few days live-tweeting old matches, publishing “One Nation One Team” pablum, and acting like this is just another match. Tim Howard and Christian Pulisic admitted that they hadn’t voted. Michael Bradley has called for unity and urged Americans to “get behind our new president and to have faith and trust that he will do what’s best for the entire country.” It’s hard to believe that these players—none of them political luminaries, clearly—are benefiting from US Soccer’s silence. They have been cast adrift by a federation that would rather engage in business as usual. On the one hand, I’m not sure what, exactly, can be said. But this isn’t just another match. It would at least be nice to hear someone acknowledge as much. Instead, the players have been left to issue fumbling statements.

Yelling isn’t working, either. What do you yell right now? Jingoism would be wide of the mark. Cheerful words, however, ring hollow. The American Outlaws will chant “This land is your land” at MAPFRE Stadium, which is a nice enough thought, but I can’t tell you what it means in this context. Is it trenchant political commentary or reassurance? Both? The normal soccer vocabulary doesn’t work here. That is the core challenge of international soccer, which tries to be both a vector for nationalism and its better angel. Those roles can only be reconciled up to a point. A national team can be a symbol of what a nation is or what it aspires to be, but in performing those roles it usually just serves to emphasize the gap between those aspects.

Soccer can be a break from conflict or a sign that life goes on in its midst. The problem, however, is that much of the world needs both of those things at once. Soccer can be a great many things, but it can’t be everything you need it to be.