Prepare yourself: the soccer World Cup kicks off this week in South Africa. The United States plays its first game on Saturday – against England. It’s the first time the two teams will have met at a World Cup tournament since 1950. On that occasion, the United States beat England 1-0 in a major upset. Now, as The World’s Alex Gallafent reports, the English are forced once again to confront the complexities of a special sporting relationship. Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. World Cup fever is reaching a climax in South Africa. Soccer’s premier tournament kicks off in less than two days and on Saturday, the U.S. plays its first game against England. The last time the two met at the World Cup was 1950. Back then the U.S. beat England. It was a huge upset given England’s status as the game’s birthplace. Maybe that’s why when it comes to soccer, the English and the Americans are locked in an uncomfortable special relationship. Here’s The World’s Alex Gallafent.
ALEX GALLAFENT: Pity the American who talks to someone from England about soccer. It’s football over there. And if you say soccer, they’ll think you don’t know what you’re talking about. For Luke Dempsey, that speaks to England’s great arrogance about the sport.
LUKE DEMPSEY: Because we invented the sport of soccer, air quotes, very strong air quotes at this point, invented the game of soccer and gave it to the world, nobody can ever come up to that standard.
GALLAFENT: As you can tell, Dempsey himself is an Englishman, albeit one who has lived in New York for more than a decade. But every time he goes back to England, he hears the same tired canards about Americans. They don’t get irony, they’ve got no fashion sense, and there’s no subtlety in their sports.
DEMPSEY: My dear late father, who was a great human being, hated basketball because as he put it, there’s no midfield. The though that they went from one end to the other and scored points in a kind of exciting way was horrifying to my father.
GALLAFENT: But basketball isn’t an English game. Football, at least in the minds of the English, is. And we have the lingo to prove it. The language of soccer in England is stuck in the 1970′s. We talk about a player being the engine of the midfield, about one team asking questions of the other. We say the back four is at sixes and sevens, and marvel at how the gaffers conjured up a brace from one player and a clean sheet from another.
SHEP MESSING: In the seventies, the little we knew about soccer was what we heard and saw that was going on in England, but that was 35 years ago.
GALLAFENT: Behold a legend of American soccer, Shep Messing. In the 1970′s Messing played for the U.S. Olympic team and for the New York Cosmos alongside global superstars such as Brazil’s Pele. Messing loves England, spends a lot of time there, but he finds English attitudes towards American soccer well . . .
GALLAFENT: The English wince when they hear American talk about cleats, not football boots. Or the coach, not the gaffer. It never ends. Americans talk about the field instead of the pitch. And they name a pair of goals scored by a single player, well a pair of goals and not as the English say enigmatically, a brace.
MESSING: But they take such great offense when somebody doesn’t say a brace or the pitch or the gaffer. It’s bizarre.
GALLAFENT: English snobbery about soccer language also raises the curtain on a long running transatlantic psychodrama.
DEMPSEY: That overwhelming sense that America is sort of the crass baby of England is very much there. I think I see it in sports all the time.
MESSING: The Americans are as just screwed up mentally about it. You get young American fans and we call them the Eurosnobs because right away they’re calling it the pitch or the gaffer or a brace or a clean sheet. And I’m saying I played professionally for 20 years with Pele and you’re telling me I’m not allowed to call it soccer? It’s bizarre.
GALLAFENT: Next stop, New Jersey. This is Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. It’s a new 200 million dollar stadium, purpose built for American soccer. Tonight Shep Messing is commentating on a game between the New York Red Bulls and the Colorado Rapids alongside his colleague, Steve Cangialosi.
STEVE CANGIALOSI: And right off the bat Shep we should get to who’s not here for Colorado. Some of their biggest names; Connor Casey and their number one goal keeper, Matt Pickens. Tonight the goalkeeper is Ian Joyce.
MESSING: Having said that, they still have some quality players in the starting 11.
GALLAFENT: For all the enthusiasm, the match is nothing spectacular, but the players are big, strong and athletic, qualities that, for the English, sum up American soccer.
DEMPSEY: Well the Americans are just viewed as hunks of hyper-fit meat.
GALLAFENT: Luke Dempsey says he has friends in England who think watching Americans play soccer is like watching monkeys play tennis; lots of strength and agility, not much finesse. But Shep Messing thinks that’s a bit rich coming from the English.
MESSING: I have a theory. The theory really is, they’re looking in the mirror and they’re seeing themselves. If you look at the American player, it’s the same stereotype; big, strong, athletic, no individual skill on the ball, no creativity. That’s the American player. So when the look with disdain, when they criticize, or look down at the American player, they’re talking about themselves.
GALLAFENT: Maybe so. But even if English and American players share similar characteristics, it’s not the whole story. There’s something else going on, a divide that runs deep between the two national psyches. Luke Dempsey identifies one of the key phrases in English football culture; the kick around. It’s an informal game of pick up that takes place in an empty parking lot or maybe on a spare patch of grass next to a polluted canal.
DEMPSEY: Let’s go and have a kick around. We just kick the ball around and we knock it to each other and somebody takes a shot and it goes into the canal and that’s it.
GALLAFENT: Contrast that with the softball team at the company where Dempsey works. They take it seriously.
DEMPSEY: They have three practices a week. It’s a matter of pride. If you’re going to do something in America, you try and do it to its ultimate thing. It’s part of the new country. There is no history to fall back on, there’s only effort and there’s only willing. Whereas in England it’s like we’ve been playing soccer since we kicked a cheese down a hill in Derbyshire. That’s how it started and so we know how to do this. Let’s just go and have a kick around.
GALLAFENT: So, unlike the all business approach of Americans, English people take perverse pride in an ethos of amateurism. Football, footie, is a game, not only a sport, a game that happens to run in our blood. And so it’s somehow unbecoming for the English to strive at soccer like Americans do, even if they’re getting paid, in the case of the big stars, much more to play it. But American’s professional approach means U.S. soccer player are getting much better. Until recently, says author Franklin Foer, the only type of American player that would likely get a chance in England was a goalkeeper.
FRANKLIN FOER: And goalkeeping was one of the acceptable positions for an American to be successful at because it involves the use of hands and was somehow not a regular soccer position.
GALLAFENT: These days, creative attacking players such as Landon Donovan are thriving in English soccer. And it’s not as if English players of that type grow on trees.
FOER: I think the fact that we’ve produced a player like that is completely befuddling for the English.
GALLAFENT: Befuddling, and not a little frightening. See, we English grew up watching America win everything. We’d see you go to the Olympics and come back with 3,000 gold medals. Whereas we’d be delighted with a couple; any color, and a pat on the back. Football, soccer if you must, is maybe the one thing we still have over you. And the thought of the United States winning on Saturday, with your cleats and your coach.
DEMPSEY: That’s horrifying to English people.
GALLAFENT: But Shep Messing says England needs to wake up and smell the coffee or the tea or whatever it is they drink over there.
MESSING: England is the great beauty and it’s the great beast. It really is. And America is the same. And when you look in the world of soccer, Brazil has an identity. Germany has an identity. Argentina has an identity. Italy has an identity. England, I think they should change their identity. And America, I still think they have to find theirs.
GALLAFENT: No pressure everyone. For The World, I’m Alex Gallafent.
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