Casual American soccer fans – or even strictly MLS fans – can have a rooting interest in Euro 2012: Die Mannschaft. Germany is the sympathetic and natural fit for Americans. But what else do you expect me to say on this partisan site?
Here’s my case. There’s a precedent: the 2010 World Cup, during which myself and others I was around grew grade school “crushes” on the German team. Anecdotally, I saw in-laws, a gaggle of rural Georgia high school students, two close friends, fellow church-goers, and folks posting on ESPN discussion forums fall for Die Mannschaft. In fact, my wife and I made a bigger deal with our close friends out of the third place game between Germany and Uruguay than the final between Spain and the Netherlands; we ate German food and quaffed German beer, while enjoying a crackling match. For a couple of weeks after the final, I remember my students rolling Schweinsteiger’s name around their mouths in Deep South drawls with so many “my boy” endearments uttered. For a few of us (okay, perhaps just one), the crush turned into a long-term and deeply committed relationship to German soccer, both domestically and internationally.
What hooked us? I’ve spent some time reflecting on this “German crush” in the past couple weeks, as Euro 2012 looms near. I’ve already briefly outlined my crush on Die Mannschaft here, as a prelude to my Bundesliga love, so I’m not going retread this ground. Instead, I want to offer an explanation for why the other Americans around me got hooked too. Silliness will ensue.
Germany doesn’t seem like the natural choice for American rooting interests. England does. You have the same language, pronounceable surnames, and the whole St. George and jolly ‘ol England thing. Plus, American soccer fans have their EPL fix and their Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, or Chelsea. There’s just more familiarity with England and English soccer than with other countries. Besides, England never left the Pound. Of course, however, I’m speaking in generalities about a largely white groups of people that I was around. However, I didn’t see any new England fans created after the World Cup. Only new Germany fans.
Here’s why: Germany’s run in the World Cup sparked buzz fueled by stereotypes/generalities used to impose frames of meaning on competition. Honestly, I think the “German Crush” reveals more about American perceptions about soccer, than it does about the jejune German squad.
Reason 1: World Cup Buzz
Americans, by large, need buzz. I’m not saying this is exclusively an American phenomenon, but buzz does help during international sporting events. Germany had buzz during the 2010 World Cup. It started early. Overlooked detail: many Americans were exposed to Die Mannschaft early in the World Cup during the Australia game on ABC, which immediately followed the U.S.’s marquee match up reenacting the Revolutionary War against England. After a tense game requiring a goalie gaff to secure the American draw-victory, the Germans’ 4-0 romp over the Aussies was cathartic with its large number of goals and numerous attacking sequences. The Germans made soccer look playable and effortless after a laboriously nervy Revolutionary War II. I remember consciously seeking out the Germany vs. Serbia game later next week, because of offense I saw in the Australia game. My in-laws did the same.
From the goal-scoring perspective, obviously the watershed moments were the 4-0 dismantling of England and Argentina. At this point, Germany reminded me of the surprise team (not necessarily an underdog), who surges through March Madness in American college hoops, generating buzz and bandwagon fans through both success and style. Die Mannschaft were exciting, mysterious, and could score goals. So this was Germany: winning in style against “big name” England and Messi’s Argentina.
For one of my close friends, the final was an afterthought; he declared that Germany played best and played “real soccer.” Some decoding was required.
Reason 2: Generalizations and Stereotypes
International tournaments import sets of national generalities and stereotypes, which lay down the tracks for the tournaments’ narratives to chug along predictably. Politics, history, and cultural stereotypes buttress these tournament narratives – both ironically and seriously. (Sidebar: I think escaping these nation vs. nation narratives is one refreshing element of domestic play, besides the squads being more balanced and able to develop bona fide identifies.) New viewers can presume a frame of meaning catalyzed by international relation tweet-bites and musty historical tidbits. New viewers of domestic play (e.g. new Bundesliga fans, EPL fans, La Liga fans, etc.) have no such option amid the dense complexity, local knowledge, and muddied globalism – those “global” domestic rosters in top flight play! – that is domestic play. That is, it’s much harder to initially frame meaning upon it all, unlike international play. For example, in my own experience, I’ve had to slowly piece together my personal frame of meaning for the Bundesliga.
With World Cup play, you can simply by-pass the painstaking process of making sense of domestic soccer by simply overlaying the tracks of generalizations that are stereotypes upon the tournament’s grand spectacle. Here’s my interpretations of how I saw it go with Die Mannschaft and the people around me.
Germany is a satisfying rooting interest within the masculine-saturated discourse of sports in German. No tippy-tappy insufferable passing. No (obvious) signs of “feminine” and “European” flopping (scourge of the NBA, a European import, of course). No Robben. No flashy flair and mincing steps. Blonde WAGS. Blocky and guttural surnames like Schweinsteiger (practically an American hero!), Podolski, Müller, Butt, Badstuber, and Mertesacker. You can be man saying these names, drinking beer and chowing on wurst. In other words, in these superficial elements, the German squad most closely resemble an American professional sporting squad. Germany is a proper manly squad of men, who play like real men in the American vein. Ha.
Oh, don’t forget that Germany is fiscally sane, deficient-phobic, hard-working, “thrifty,” and sensible. Unlike the suspicious “Mediterranean” countries, like Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Rooting for Germany is patriotic. Of course. (For now we’ll forget about infernal socialism and Jogi Löw’s Euro-trash wardrobe choices.)
Yes, I’m partially being tongue-in-cheek, but the phenomenon is real enough. It’s like picking politicians according to hairdos, rumored hunting trips, lapel pins, and menu choices. We code generalized meanings into these seemingly trivial things. And in the context of international soccer, we code stereotypes about other countries and cultures into the trivial details, which of course makes them not trivial. Maddeningly.
Yet real men are winners, which Germany was in 2010. A necessary prerequisite here. In sports, #Winning acquires currency that is deeply rooted in the American DNA of upward mobility and opportunity. We react to winning paradoxically with awe and jealousy. A winning “run” is admirable and bandwagon-inducing. I know from personal experience.
In American sports, “they” say that we like loads of points and scoring (hello NFL, NBA, and grand slams in baseball). This high-scoring rhetoric deeply inscribes sports radio and casts low-scoring sports, like soccer, as boring. Germany, you earned precious American adoration with your “anti-soccer” soccer by scoring loads of goals in a World Cup that, to American viewers, seemed boring. (Another sidebar: those 1-0 wins by the suffocating field-tarp that was Spain in 2010 is the antithesis of America itself.)
Don’t underestimate the diversity of the German squad for American audiences: Khedira, Özil, Cacau, Podolski, Boeteng, Gómez. We understand melting pots. It’s icing on the cake. Again, in this particular regard, the German squad is the most American of sporting squads. We secretly flaunt our comfort with diversity, opposed to Europeans. We secretly pride ourselves, despite a dark history and complicated present, that we’ve made more progress on the racial diversity front. We don’t have a bloodline at stake; we are always already immigrants in America.
Plus, Germany, we want to be like you. I get this vague sense that the famed “German system” and the Bundesliga are inspirational for the USMNT and MLS. Or they should be. Diverse squads and a domestic league of quality, parity, and upward mobility. Germany is our aspirational future.
Fandom through Freedom
America, are you convinced yet? You’ve already convinced yourself. America, Germany is the manly choice for rooting interests. Screw silly England, our former overlords.
You have endured some good-hearted silliness, so let me drill down for a paragraph.
As a big sports fan in America, I’ve spent some time reflecting on just how weird sports fandom is in this country. First, there’s this byzantine quasi-legalistic system of fandom rules and regulations that are circulated through our sports discourses (conversations, radio, TV, social media). Fandom is a carefully reasoned (even if with absurd criteria) consumer decision. We lack a certain geographical and ethnic rootedness for making these decisions by other “purer” means. I don’t mean to say that America is different from others countries in this regard, it’s just that American fandom culture is what I know. For all I know, German sports fandom is just as weird (is it?). Because American identity is largely grounded in ideals and values (e.g. personal autonomy and upward mobility), we come to international sporting events with this baggage, then gravitate toward that which fulfills it. We cheer for ideals and values, even if manifested through trivial details. I don’t want to say that an American’s experience of something like Euro 2012 is consequently “shallower” (whatever this means – emotionally shallower?) than a European with geographic and ethnic roots in a participating country. However, the American experience of this event is certainly freer. Free from the narratives of past victories, disasters, and rooted continental rivalries. So I wonder where this freedom leaves us American fans who watch Euro 2012?
It leaves us with choices.