An answer to Roger Pielke jr.’s comment on Klinsmann as the new US coach. By Werner Krauss (pictured below), a German cultural anthropologist, who lived and taught for five years at the University of Texas at Austin.
Today, sport is the most visible expression of culture in a globalized world. The best architects compete for building ever more spectacular stadiums; the Olympics and the soccer World Cup are the greatest mass events on the planet; and every weekend, hundreds of millions of people root for their teams. Bodies, dreams and identities are shaped in these global arenas, while the performances of athletes transcend the gravity of the everyday. This universal cultural sports machine has its own geography of disciplines, with soccer as the most popular sports worldwide – except in the United States of America.
That’s exactly where Klinsmann starts as US soccer coach; his ambition is to find a place for soccer in the American culture. In order to do so, soccer will have both to reflect and to shape American culture as much as football, basketball, hockey or baseball do. It indeed takes a coach with an anthropological understanding of culture in order to establish soccer on the cultural landscape of North America, as Klinsmann already observed: “There are a lot of opinions, a lot of ideas from youth soccer to college, which is a model different from anywhere in the world.“ American soccer is both a cultural model that still is in search of its anthropologist and a sportive diaspora that is in search of its perfect coach and developer.
If someone will manage to establish soccer in the American culture, maybe Klinsmann really is the man. He had his share in rejuvenating Germany’s national squad and Germany’s image. Remember 2006, the World Cup summer that was dubbed ‘a summer’s fairy tale’? Klinsmann brought a big Californian smile back home to sober Germany, and it smiled back. And do you remember how puzzled Americans realized that something is going on without them really being part of it? They had a team over there in Germany, but the team was just a team representing the most ordinary of American pragmatic values: you are only in it as long as you win. It wasn’t and still isn’t rooted in American culture, and it even less represents American culture.
It was in a baseball stadium where I once personally discovered America’s true heart and soul. Happy loving couples were strolling through the stadium, kids were photographed, everybody balanced enormous cokes and hot dogs with chili sauce and jalapenos – it was in the Minute Maid Stadium in Houston. The audience was singing the national anthem and Bright Eyes of Texas, and once in a while a voice from the loudspeakers reminded them that there is a match going on, too. It was a beautiful American Sunday afternoon, while in the outside world, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going on, the housing crisis was already looming and Bush’s America was spelled K-a-t-r-i-n-a by the rest of the world. Only here in the stadium, America was all by itself, peaceful sharing their provincial dreams of being an invincible super power.
While I taught at the University of Texas at Austin, students whispered into my ear that soccer is for those who are not tough enough for football; it’s for the intellectuals, the Hispanics, the fags and the girls. For the rest, it’s American football where it’s at. The stadium of the Longhorns at the University of Texas fits for 100.000 spectators. The Longhorns are the totem of a deeply ritualized culture, which worships young gladiators with (fake) scholarships, playing in teams whose coaches earn 5 million dollars while faculty salaries are cut; with cheerleaders entertaining the crowd, while oil billionaires, old families and other VIPs have their drinks in the player’s lounge and negotiate America’s or even the world’s future. The Longhorn is a cultural symbol, and in football truly American culture is performed, week after week. It’s not the melting pot or the salad bowl that represents American culture; it’s the super bowl.
Is there really no place for soccer in this deeply rooted American sports culture? Klinsmann is a clever guy, who indeed has seen many soccer cultures in this world. Many young Americans already show a great interest in European cultures or at least the European Champions League. And soccer doesn’t mean Europe only. Klinsmann knows that America’s future is Hispanic, too: “What will be the U.S. style of play? Aggressive or reactive? It comes with the players and people you surround yourself with. There is a wealth of knowledge here that is unheard of in the Europe or South America”.
Maybe it really takes a coach with an anthropological eye to face the challenge of bringing soccer really to the US. The answer will be simple, and here Roger Pielke jr. indeed is right: either he wins, or else he will get kicked out. But this is not unique to American pragmatism; it is part of the game.