Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Manifest Destiny

In Long form, Soccer on August 9, 2011 at 10:43 am

For millions, soccer has always been a magical game. Perhaps its most attractive facet is how it reveals a certain outlook about the world. Baseball is not this way. The actual action in a baseball game is so isolated, and the offensive options so limited, that the action becomes robotic. Football, in its ever-evolving attempt to emulate warfare, has turned its players into soldiers and divisions on a battlefield. Their actions are heroic and brave but ultimately directed by someone else. Even basketball, the alleged improvisational jazz of sports, can become monotonous and derivative in the name of efficiency.

But soccer is different. The game is so long and demanding that we, as fans, get to see the personality of the players on the field manifest itself in their actions. English players are rugged if not foolhardy. Brazilians are dancers. Spanish players are tikki-takki wizards and Germans are Teutonic models of efficiency.

This was strongly evidenced in the events surrounding the United States women’s national team in the World Cup several weeks ago. Particularly the moment when Abby Wambach, long the frustrated, penultimate player in the world—the gritty and powerful runner-up to Marta’s grace and elegance, her resume lacking a World Cup title—managed an incredulous extra-time goal to force overtime versus Marta’s Brazilians.

American coach Pia Soundage gave the perfect description of Abby Wambach’s extra time goal versus Brazil. “I come from Sweden, and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing the best performance out of each other, that’s contagious,” Soundage said.

But it’s too bad most of us did not understand what she meant.

For so long we’ve come to think of the American sporting identity as the ability of will to overcome any situation. Michael Jordan’s flu game versus the Jazz. Kirk Gibson homering to right field on one good leg. John Elway silencing the doubters with a Super Bowl win to end his career. The American sporting identity is manifest destiny, emphasis on the destiny.

Already the drumbeat had started to view Wambach’s goal through the prism of self-determination and pre-destination. The most magical thing about the extra-time goal, the thinking goes, was the way the Americans overcame adversity. It was not the sublime cross or the run down the sideline. It was not the way Wambach timed her run or the skill it took to finish the header. No, the greatest thing about the play was, as the cliché goes, it showed the Americans’ will to win.

This is false.

Yes, the American team faced obstacles in the game versus Brazil. It is never beneficial to play a man down. And of course in the grand scheme of things Hope Solo and the rest of the American team would not have wanted Marta’s penalty kick to be re-awarded due to encroachment. But Brazil also faced obstacles, obstacles, quite frankly, that were greater than the American’s.

Tommy Smyth pointed out on ESPN radio that the Brazilians, thanks to their lack of international friendlies prior to the World Cup, were far less fit than the American squad. Yet, they battled back and were able to score the first goal during extra time. Smith also mentioned that as tough as the ruling on Marta’s penalty was, and it was tough, Brazil’s own goal in the first minutes of the match was equally as tough. Call it a game of overcoming adversity, fine. But don’t give the U.S. credit for wanting it more.

And that’s not even to get into the resilience and tenacity of the Japanese the next weekend, twice equalizing against the run of play after American goals, including an extra-time strike every bit as dramatic as Wambach’s to force penalties. It seemed preordained that the island nation would then prevail on penalties, but that was surely from grit derived from a desire to give their struggling country a lift from the recent earthquake disaster; surely it wasn’t due to manifest destiny or any such construct, no.

As American fans, we don’t know how to process ambiguity. We’ve lost the ability, somewhere down the line, to enjoy the game for its aesthetic beauty. We no longer process our emotions through our ability to interact with the experience, but rather we can only process by comparison.

So far, there have been no shortage of people who have called Wambach’s goal the sporting play of the year. The most significant goal in American women’s soccer history. One of the greatest goals, period, they have ever seen. There have been comparisons of the American women’s team to the men’s side and debates about whether this most recent goal tops Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria last summer.

The only question is why? How do these comparisons help us process what we’ve just witnessed on the field? The answer, in short, is that it doesn’t. In our rush to give the event context, we lose its clarity. We lose what was right in front of us.

Soccer players have certain individual identities, identities which oftentimes are tied to their nationalities. For years, Americans have been known throughout Europe and the rest of the soccer-speaking world as generally skill-less players with exceptional heart. Don’t ask an American to finish from 40-yards out, the thinking goes, but if you ever need somebody to track back in a fit of desperation, feel free to give Uncle Sam a call.

In the rush to give Wambach’s goal proper context, or to christen it a Jordan-like performance of exerting her will, the essential Americanness of the play is lost. Amy LePeilbet’s cross from the left was great, but what makes it even greater was the inherent hope in the ball. LePeilbet did not believe the play, the game, the Cup to be over. She continued to run.

And Wambach continued to run. She signaled for the ball despite being at least 30 yards away because that was how the Americans were going to have to score. There was no doubt, there was no certainty. There was only a belief that the match should be played out in full until the final whistle.

“This American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing the best performance out of each other, that’s contagious,” Soundage said. But maybe, just maybe, in our attempt to contextualize what we saw, we failed to understand what she meant.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: