Commentary: Soccer and Foreign Policy

Nov 14, 2017

  President Trump’s Asia trip makes me think of – soccer. I love soccer. Columbia College has two nationally-ranked teams and I’m a big fan. I help my daughter coach a recreation league team here in Columbia that my granddaughters and grandson play on. I coached youth soccer for many years when we lived in Kirksville.

So the pathetic failure of the U.S. men’s National team to qualify for next year’s World Cup by losing to Trinidad-Tobago, one of the worst teams in the world, is galling on many fronts. My soccer-loving family won’t get to enjoy watching the USA play next year. Worse, thousands of American youth will lose interest in soccer and return to their video games. 

 

And this is about politics how, you ask? Thank you for your patience. American soccer and American foreign policy have divergent, almost opposite histories. During the fifty-year period when American foreign policy was robust and coherent, USA soccer was awful. With the two odd exceptions of 1930, when the U.S. actually came in third in the very first World Cup, and 1950, when a ragtag squad of mostly St. Louis amateurs beat mighty England in the first round, the USA simply was not a player.

On the other hand, in foreign and military affairs during this period America:

  • Led the Allies to victory in World War II
  • Rebuilt Europe
  • Restored the war-ravaged world economy based on free trade
  • Contained and eventually bankrupted the Soviet Union

By 1990 the Iron Curtain was gone and the USSR was about to go. In 1990 Team USA qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1950. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the world turned upside down again. The Middle East was set afire with an inferno that rages to this day. China became a major economic rival. The European project began unraveling. Millions of refugees and immigrants went on the move. Intolerance and nationalism reemerged as potent political forces.

While the world was coming apart, in part due to muddled or misguided American foreign policy, American soccer was riding high, always qualifying for the Cup and occasionally beating elite teams. 

Well, in 2018, Iceland, with a population of less than 400,000, will play in the Cup and USA will not. And the way things are going in 2018 American foreign policy will be in even more disarray than it is now.

The solution for American soccer is to start over. If the richest country in the history of the world, by a bunch, can’t field a soccer team in the top 32, then the solution is to start over. Is this also the solution for American foreign policy? Even with our might and reach, we have lost respect and forfeited moral authority. I don’t have the solution. I just know that what we’ve been doing for years now isn’t working. It feels like we’re in injury time at the end of the match and we’re behind. Do we need new players? A new strategy? New ownership? All of the above?