When I was a sports-obsessed kid growing up in the 1970s, soccer's World Cup was an oddity that turned up one Saturday every four years on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," wedged between Demolition Derby, cliff diving in Acapulco, and other freak shows involving the human drama of athletic competition.
In hindsight, the not-ready-for-prime-time status of the world's most-popular sporting event was kind of a metaphor for American arrogance in the Vietnam era, an insular nation too busy bashing heads in Green Bay and Pittsburgh on any given Sunday to even be curious about what brought the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat to a few billion planetary Others.
For me, life changed forever one June afternoon in 1990, when an editor dispatched this clueless reporter to write about the scene at a pub in lower Manhattan where scores of Brits in ill-fitting jerseys or rugby shirts had spilled out onto a cobblestone street with their warm and bitter pints, singing off-key while their England sought glory on a pitch halfway around the world. The vibe was intoxicating — figuratively as well as literally — and for me it was the birth of a notion.
Why can't America join this amazing world party?
We had…sort of — 1990 in Italy was actually the first time the United States had qualified for the World Cup finals in 40 years. Even though that team was dreadful — finishing 23rd out of the 24 teams — I had latched onto a dream. Four years later — in a new post-Berlin-Wall age where people around the world craved America's bluejeans and Lionel Richie CDs — soccer's ruling body actually brought the World Cup finals to the United States, a ploy to kick-start their sport in the lone global superpower. The fever dream of 1990 was slowly becoming a reality. By 2010, when Landon Donovan scored a last second goal to beat Algeria and send the U.S. team to the round of 16, packed American barrooms erupted and horns honked in the streets. We weren't the world's best, but we were part of the dance.
But then came the nightmare: October 10, 2017. For a soccer obsessive, it was the second-most haunting Tuesday night of the grim 2010s. The parallels between that evening and November 8, 2016, were almost chilling. U.S. soccer had grown divided, disgruntled and suddenly inept at just the wrong moment — with an undeserved overconfidence of automatic World Cup qualification that was the sports equivalent of a certain presidential candidate failing to campaign in Wisconsin.
Still, it would take an impossible series of events — a loss to the tiny not-world-superpower of Trinidad and Tobago (even a draw would have sufficed) and unlikely outcomes on other pitches across Central America — for the U.S. men not to qualify for 2018's finals in Russia. What happened over the next two hours was U.S. men's soccer equivalent of getting those election results from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and it felt like a kick in the head.
When Russia and Saudi Arabia kick off the 32-team finals on Thursday, the United States will be sitting on the sidelines for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office, waging the Cold War. This could have been one month of national escape, even catharsis, at a time when America is more divided politically and more bitter than any time in the last half-century. Instead, the World Cup has become the planet's biggest metaphor — another reminder, this time on a soccer pitch, that the United States under Donald Trump is increasingly adrift and isolated from the rest of the world.
In the soccer universe, America's best players like the up-and-coming Christian Pulisic will be sitting on a couch watching Argentina's Lionel Messi, Egypt's Mo Salah and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo dominate the global stage. In the real world, the baffled leaders of our erstwhile allies like Canada, Germany and Japan are struggling to figure out how to go forward without America as a reliable partner after Trump's erratic performance at the G-7 — or is it the G-6 now? — summit.
On bright green grass 5,000 miles away, nations that once fought against each other in the world's wars are now building bridges with a tiny black-and-white ball. Here at home, our new national pastime under Trump is a passion for constructing walls across a dusty desert, and ripping little kids out of the arms of moms and dads fleeing gang violence and the terror of domestic abuse.
Just a coincidence? On some level, sure — you can't exactly blame the limping, sub-par men's soccer team that took to the pitch in 2016 and 2017 on the rising tide of xenophobia that helped elect Trump. But this week I spoke with an expert — UCLA sports law professor and soccer fanatic Steven Bank — who told me it's not crazy to see parallels between America's moral crisis and its soccer crisis.
"There are undercurrents of the popular support for Trump in the soccer debate," Bank said — noting that the squad that failed for qualify for this month's finals was wracked by dissension over its German coach, the eventually ousted Jurgen Klinsmann, and his push to play foreign-born dual citizens over some native-born Americans. After Klinsman departed, the Americans — who seemed to blame their loss at Trinidad and Tobago as much on a bad pitch as their own lack of focus — came off as a whiny and entitled. Does this sound familiar?
Increasingly, soccer is a playing field for America's identity crisis, and not just on the big stage. In Idaho, which went for Trump by landslide proportions in 2016, a winning youth soccer coach whose team is largely comprised of immigrant kids was rattled by a slur-filled letter warning him to "be careful." The moral slings and arrows begin to pile up.
So here's the new problem: America's declining popularity and the accompanying lack of respect that started to snowball after November 2016 is threatening to put a brand-new dagger through the hearts of U.S. soccer lovers like me. A generation after the World Cup first came here, the long-corrupt-but-maybe-reform-minded FIFA — the world soccer organization — has been looking toward North America and a novel plan for the United States and (irony alert!) our now-Trump-era "frenemies," Canada and Mexico, to co-host the tournament in 2026.
The decision is coming Wednesday, and the North American bid — a chance to reconnect, if you will, between us and the world — looked like a slam dunk, to use a badly mixed metaphor. The three countries have the best and largest soccer-ready stadiums in the world. Their only rival is the tiny North African nation of Morocco, which doesn't have those resources. And yet the experts are increasingly worried the U.S.-led partnership won't get it. The internal politics of soccer defy an easy analysis, but some worry that the Trump Factor will tip the scales against us.
"Nothing feels better than to demean the powerful," Andrei S. Markovits of the University of Michigan told my colleague Jonathan Tannenwald last month. "Thus, beating up on all things pertaining to American soccer feels so good because one is vicariously beating up on American political power and American global influence that have nothing to do with soccer itself." Some voters will surely be troubled by U.S. immigration policies, especially the travel ban that targeted Muslim nations, and others are angered by a Trump tweet on the North American bid that some saw as a threat,
Still, there's a good chance Trump's bullying and his border cruelty may not be enough to derail North America's bid. A positive vote by FIFA would surely be an admission that they want our money and our massive taxpayer-funded stadiums, but it would be also weirdly similar to the pleas that you hear from a Justin Trudeau or an Emmanuel Macron these days, that the world needs a strong and healthy America. And hey, we all know that Donald Trump won't still be the president in 2026 — barring, of course, a coup…a line I never would have dreamed of adding before the last few weeks.