Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Soccer Coach as Anthropologist

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.


  1. Hi Werner,

    Thanks much for the thoughtful comment. Let me respond with a few points.

    1. Soccer is here in the United States. How might we measure this? Well, attendance at MLS games is about the same as the Bundesliga 2, Série A in Brazil, and the English Championship. TV ratings are high and it is by far the most popular sport among children. It is not the most popular sport and it is probably celebrated by 10s of millions, not 100s of millions. But it is really here. Klinsmann need not worry about that.

    2. The Super Bowl is a big part of American culture (as are baseball and Texas football) but they are not the same thing as American culture, which is far more diverse in sport as well as beyond sport. But in both types of football, Al Davis' philosophy reigns.

    3. The pragmatic bent in American sport is not unique, to be sure, but it is characteristic in ways that it is not elsewhere. The reaction to Dunga's failure in Brazil in the last world cup would not happen here and the phenomenon that is St Pauli also would not be found here. (Both decidedly not pragmatic from a pure sports perspective.)

    The US soccer coach need not be an anthropologist, he needs to worry more about finding forwards who can reliably finish ;-)

  2. Roger, here a few comments:

    @1 No doubt, you are right. But there is no developed or fully organized national "soccer culture" yet, as it exists for example in football. No "national style", to put it in Klinsmannian terms. Maybe exceptional players are enough, but in Europe most nations or clubs developed this kind of "national style" - just look at Spain or Germany these days.

    @2 Sure, there is more to American culture than only the Super Bowl. I just wanted to show that football indeed is a cultural activity which goes far beyond the pragmatism of winning and loosing. And considering it's importance concerning cultural concepts of gender roles (rude men, cheerleaders), of how to be popular and successful, of capitalism and its dominance over masculinity (players have to wait until TV commercials for anti-depressants are over) etc - I wouldn't underestimate the role of football in overall American culture.

    @3 Lance Armstrong, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods etc are not imaginable elsewhere; their status as mythical super heroes is also "decidedly not pragmatic from a pure sports perspective". But what I consider very "American" is that there is no concept for losing. You always win, or else you are not existent.Sounds American to me.

    But for sure it's true, Klinsmann needs some forwards and, not to forget: a defense helps a lot, too. (1:1 seems to be a good start, I guess. Haven't seen the match against Mexico).

  3. Somehow I remember that the US-female team won at least two world championships? Thus, US-Fußball has significantly contributed to this sport on a global level.

  4. Hi Werner,


    1. Right. I'd argue that JK should not look for any such "national style" much less try to create one. I see the causality the other way-round, just win baby, and he'll find that he has become a part of American culture.

    2. Remember, Texas is a whole 'nother country ;-) Football is interesting because by definition it is a part of American culture because it is played no where else (except as American export). It is like Aussie rules football or even Oktoberfest, which gain a cultural identity via its unique domestic context. That said, as a vehicle for conveying masculinity, popularity, capitalism etc. American football does not seem particularly unique.

    3. Indeed - "Just win baby" is my advice to Klinsmann in an American context. Even so, Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Pele and even Dirk Nowitski are also mythical superheros even outside a US cultural context. But maybe that just reflects the globalization (or American-ization) of sports culture, or maybe just the relentless appeal of pragmatism ... or both ;-)

    I watched US-Mexico, and the first half was a disaster and the second half a revelation. Klinsmann succeeded in that his player experiments worked well and will provide the legitimacy needed for more such changes. A generational change is upon US soccer in many ways.

    I saw Klinsmann interviewed after the game on ESPN (in English for an American audience) and then later on FSC (in German for some German outlet). Based on his different demeanors in the two interviews I'd say that he is indeed pretty sensitive to the different national cultures that he was speaking to ... maybe an anthropologist after all?

  5. "Klinsmann has to wait" is a headline in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung today. The article about the US-Mexico match is illustrated with a photo of, well, two baseball kids from the "Little League World Series". Why? Because ESPN2 transmitted the socccer match only after the kids' baseball was over, 21 minutes late. Thus, the American TV audience missed the first Mexican goal. This short article says a lot about the role of American soccer as perceived on both sides of the Atlantic.

  6. Poor Klinsi: here more scorn from Germany, this time from notorious spiegel-online:

    "Children's baseball instead of debut as a coach:
    12 year old steals show from Klinsmann",1518,779634,00.html

  7. Werner, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel are having some fun with German expectations of American stereotypes. ESPN has multiple networks and channels, in my case I had to perform the difficult task of flipping the channel from 144 to 142 in order to watch the entire game. No one need have missed the first Mexican goal;-)