A thought on the future of U.S. national team fandom

January 17, 2021

There’s a video from 2010 I think about a lot that shows a variety of Americans’ reactions to Landon Donovan scoring his last-second goal against Algeria in that year’s World Cup.

I was in an office in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I worked for a sports media company. Perhaps my memory is fogged by time and what I wish it to be, but I remember a bunch of us were gathered around a television, watching the end of the game.

When Howard stopped the header, there was a collective rumble in the group as we all understood this was probably the USMNT’s last chance at a goal that would put them through to the knockout round. When Dempsey’s shot got stoned, the entire building groaned, and when Donovan slammed home the game-winner, there was a collective shriek, a release, and a wave of joy.

The reaction video shows this process playing out, again and again, across the country and around the world. There’s a guy alone in his Arkansas living room, college kids in what looks like a university dining hall in Davis, California, people dancing on the sidewalks in New York City and Durban, South Africa, bar patrons hugging each other in Boston, Massachusetts, and Covington, Kentucky. It concludes with people in multiple locations chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

There aren’t many areas on the global stage where the U.S. is an underdog, and soccer might be the only moderately popular sport where one of our national teams faces serious struggle, so the American experience of the men’s World Cup is a rare confluence of national popularity and likely failure, leading to moments like this one where optimism gets rewarded in the face of long odds.

Given all that, this video gives me chills every time I watch because it’s so damn earnest and wholesome. They’re happy, together, united behind a sports team, and they’re able to chant their country’s name without thinking about whether they’re throwing their lot in with insurrectionists seeking to enact their political agenda by intimidation and force.

American patriotism is already fraught enough, what with the United States’ history of bombing other people for little to no reason and our position as a superpower with so much wealth and yet so much death, suffering, and destruction, domestic and foreign. But over the past few years I’ve watched this reaction video and started to wonder if I’ll ever have a moment like it again — partly because I’m feeling a loss of gathering in crowds, but also because back in 2010 I could think that John McCain or Mitt Romney was misguided, and while a few of their followers were crackpots (like a few of Obama’s voters) most of them were merely misguided, too, and at core they still wanted to find a way for all of us to live in peace and prosperity. Now, I can’t think that about Donald Trump’s cultists because he has made it clear he doesn’t care if I and everyone I care about is dead, and they have followed his lead.

Therefore, my patriotism is more conditional than it once was and necessarily a patriotism in solidarity with only a fraction of my country, because a big chunk doesn’t want me here and won’t accept anything other than my total subjugation. Therefore, I'm thinking about my national team fandom instead of just living it. That sucks.

If I watch the 2022 World Cup, currently set to be played in Qatari stadiums built with quasi-slave labor, I’ll want that feeling again, of community with people from all walks of American life, but I fear there’s been an irreparable rupture and, in my mind at least, we’ll never all be on the same side again.

(Photo: "USA v Algeria World Cup Match" by jasonwhat. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)