I have written often in this blog on how football has the ability of bringing up to the surface underlying tensions and anxieties in Australian society that often lie unseen and unexposed in other circumstances. The World Cup, because of its immense global media presence tends to inspire non-football friendly articles (although less this year) and comments on media, but nothing from Australia could surpass a piece from USA’s right wing loopy tea party loving commentator Ann Coulter. The type of articles that Coulter writes are often so outlandish that you have to wonder whether they are really parody. I suspect they are more designed for manufacturing outrage and consequently more links more clicks and more interest and this is water to the mill for Coulter.
Whether heart felt, or a glorified troll bait, her arguments have been picked up and discussed in an article titled: Ann Coulter Is Right to Fear the World Cup by Peter Beinart (@peterbeinart) and interestingly he puts the hate of football in the USA squarely in its tradition of exceptionalism
Soccer hatred, in other words, exemplifies American exceptionalism. For roughly two centuries, American exceptionalism has rested on the premise that there is a standard mode of national behavior, born in Europe, which America resists. Over the centuries, what constitutes that European standard—and America’s resistance to it—has changed. For some 19th-century thinkers, for instance, what made America exceptional was its refusal to partake of the European habit of fighting wars. For Coulter and many contemporary conservatives, by contrast, part of what makes America exceptional is its individualism, manliness and populism. (All of which soccer allegedly lacks).
But Coulter’s deeper point is that for America to truly be America, it must stand apart. That’s why she brings up the metric system. The main reason to resist the metric system isn’t that it’s a bad form of measurement. It’s that it’s a European form of measurement. So it is with soccer. Soccer’s alleged collectivism, effeminacy and elitism are simply markers of its foreignness. The core problem with embracing soccer is that in so doing, America would become more like the rest of the world.
Beinart makes the point that one of the reasons why football didn’t catch on is because its development in Europe and South America coincided with a massive influx of migrants in the USA, and sport was a way to create a separate identity.
The arbiters of taste in late 19th and early 20th century America wanted its national pastimes to be exceptional. Despite the British roots of both baseball (in rounders) and football (in rugby), their promoters worked to cleanse them of foreign associations and market them as American originals. Basketball had the good fortune to have actually been invented in the United States.
Soccer, by contrast, was associated with foreignness in an era when mass immigration was spawning Coulter-like fears that America was losing its special character. “Soccer,” Markovits and Hellerman argue, “was perceived by both native-born Americans and immigrants as a non-American activity at a time in American history when nativism and nationalism emerged to create a distinctly American self-image … if one liked soccer, one was viewed as at least resisting—if not outright rejecting—integration into America.” Old-stock Americans, in other words, were elevating baseball, football, and basketball into symbols of America’s distinct identity. Immigrants realized that embracing those sports offered a way to claim that identity for themselves. Clinging to soccer, by contrast, was a declaration that you would not melt.
There has been comments on social media that Coulter’s argument echoes the anti-football sentiment in Australia. There are similarities, but in my opinion their context is very different.
Ian Syson’s Neos Osmos website has collected examples of the tussle between the Australian version of football and the ‘British’ version at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. He writes:
The earliest direct ref to its foreignness (of football) is in 1905 though its Britishness was usually emphasised in earlier reports. Indeed, it is sometimes a “wicked foreign game” that menaces and threatens to overrun Australian society, steal our land and brainwash and enfeeble our children. Its values and practices are ‘other’ and the game has periodically been asked to go back to where it came from.
While this eerily echoes Coulter’s arguments 100 year later, here is where the similarities end. While Coulter’s article have similar themes with an Australian perception (ie. its lack of perceived manliness) unlike the USA who fought a war to become independent from Great Britain and become a Republic, Australia was fiercely pro British. At the turn of the century many Australians would consider themselves as British subjects in the Empire under the British Monarch. Also a game which is English par excellence, cricket, became the truly national sport. No issue with being too ‘British’ there. There was no impetus to create an uniquely Australian version, like an Aussie baseball. Beating the Poms became a major feature in Australian sport.
So why this Australian exceptionalism occurred only in football codes? Why did Australians in all states except NSW and Victoria felt the need to create their own identity through their own brand of football and excluding something which was too ‘British’ when being British was part and parcel of Australia?
When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
“Brittannia rules the wave!”
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”
The current situation is different as well. Americans may not like football because of the reasons outlined by Coulter, but there seems to be little anxiety from the major code. Just look at this tweet.
— The Football Sack (@TheFootballSack) July 1, 2014
The Football Sack raises and interesting question. Would an AFL team opened up their grounds so that people could watch a football game? Perhaps, but the reactions around this time from some AFL media is predictable as it is disappointing. Such as an article by Tim Lane (which I have lots of respect for) titled Sleeping giant looms over footy’s fragile web. Here again we have the theme of the AFL being careful about the ‘sleeping giant’. Lane states:
But in 2014 another taste was offered of how exciting this World Cup thing could one day be. And it hasn’t done the development of the round ball game in this country any harm. Long established sporting cultures don’t change overnight. Australian soccer has come a long way in 10 years.
Which raises the question: is there more the indigenous game should do to insulate itself against any long-term challenge to its claim as most popular football code in the land?
It is disappointing that we have comments such as these. Why instead of rejoicing of a team representing our country, Australia, and accounting itself well on the world stage, its success is seen negatively? As a threat?
Anti football people in the USA and Australia, may sound like raising similar arguments, but their context are different. In both cases football is being portrayed as foreign. But in the USA is seen as an indication of a change in its traditional values by conservatives from within, a bit like the introduction of universal health care. In Australia it is perceived as a foreign threat, from outside, attacking the ‘indigenous’ game. It falls into that Australia’s unfortunate malaise of xenophobia. From the unease of foreign workers on 457 visas, the ‘Yellow Peril of the 1960’s to ‘Stop the Boats now’, The fear of the ‘external threat’ is ever present in the Australian psyche.