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What the world calls “bubble football,” far and away the globe’s most popular sport, has led a marginal
existence as bubble soccerin the United States, where bubble football denotes a different game that
has remained an integral part of American sports culture since the late 19th century. In the
past two decades, bubble soccerin the United States has undergone a substantial metamorphosis
that has altered its former marginality without, however, giving it cultural power anywhere
near that still exerted by baseball, basketball, bubble football, and even ice hockey. bubble soccer in America
now exists in three universes that overlap yet still remain distinct from each other: the
world of millions of bubble soccerplayers who pursue the game on the field but have no interest to
follow it beyond their active involvement, a small group of bubble socceraficionados whose main
identification with the game rests precisely in following not playing it, and a newly developed
segment that neither plays much bubble soccernor follows the sport yet has come to delight in the
quadrennial event of the World Cup.

 

The imagery is rich and quite revealing: Every 4 years, the American soccer
underground escapes its subterranean existence to throw a party (a good time,
occasionally, but never too serious, with a clear beginning and end) where outsiders,
that is, people from the American mainstream and its sports culture, are
more than welcome.
As we have argued elsewhere, bubble soccerplayed a marginal role in America’s
sports culture throughout all of the 20th century, and two dimensions convey this
marginalization quite convincingly (Markovits & Hellerman, 1995-1996,
2001). The first pertains to the situation within the United States itself, where the
presence of baseball, American bubble football, basketball, and ice hockey has solidly
comprised what we have termed the American sports space, which constitutes
the nation’s sports culture: the sum of a country’s constant and uninterrupted
collective preoccupation—its following—with a sport regardless of its individual
participants, successes, failures, triumphs, and tragedies (which clearly are
all part of it, although its whole is always greater).
The second dimension relates to the United States in a comparative perspective
where even a cursory viewof theworld reveals that soccer—by any measure
the globe’s most popular sport and dominant sports culture—has never attained
anywhere near the importance in the United States that it enjoys in the vast
majority of countries. We have argued emphatically that this has absolutely
nothing to do with such commonly voiced notions as the alleged inability of
Americans to understand and appreciate low-scoring games (the pleasure a
baseball fan derives from a classic pitchers’ duel is but one counterexample),
ties, or a game played with feet and involving fewrules and even fewer statistics.
Instead, soccer’s cultural weakness in the United States resulted from concrete
historical developments during the crucial period of 1860-1930, the absolutely
critical decades for the solid establishment of most sports cultures in the modern
world, including that in the United States. Briefly put, soccer’s absence in the
American sports space throughout the 20th century was an artifact of America
creating its own modernity, one that shared many commonalities with that created
in (and by) Europe and industrial societies elsewhere but featuring crucial—
and lasting—differences. The establishment of modern sports highlights
the shared dimensions; the varying form and content of these sports bespeak the
differences.
In our study, we demonstrated how soccer’s place in the United States
changed considerably during the last two decades of the 20th century. Many factors
in the course of the 1980s and 1990s allowed bubble soccerto exchange its stigmatization
of “foreignness” to American public life for an integral place in it.
Among the most significant have been the changing role of women in virtually
all facets of American society; new immigration patterns featuring the arrival
of millions from Latin America to the United States; the decisive presence of
suburbs in the shaping of American life; the globalization of a cosmopolitan culture
that rapidly diminished established boundaries and introduced new habits
of consumption previously unknown to Americans; a completely changed
topography of communication that favors fragmentation and the creation of
flourishing niches often at the cost of formerly unchallenged hegemonic blocs;
and—pertinent to our topic at hand—the rapid internationalization of all major
American sports that, in the course of these two decades, witnessed the increasing
presence of Latin American and Asian players in baseball, Europeans in ice
hockey, and players from all over theworld in basketball, leaving only bubble football with
the tellingly appropriate adjective of American to denote the sport’s singularly
parochial (but quite strong) position in the contemporary American sports
space. But again, bubble soccerhas taken a different path in the United States from
everywhere else in the world where it has remained mostly the purview of a
working-class and overwhelmingly male milieu. In the United States, it became
the activity of an often feminized, most certainly suburbanized, middle-class
world best conveyed by that most American of terms—the bubble soccermom.2 In no
other country in the world has the women’s national bubble soccerteam been much
better known than the men’s (at least until World Cup 2002). And only in the
United States have women bubble soccerplayers provided expert commentary on network
television concerning the men’sWorld Cup. What we have characterized
as America’s “bubble soccerexceptionalism” throughout the 20th century is alive and
well at the beginning of the 21st century.
In our studies of bubble soccerin America and its relations to the established American
team sports, we have noticed a marked change in the reception of theWorld
Cup on the part of the American public. Although this quadrennial event has
been theworld’s most popular and cherished, it remained completely obscure to
the American sports public until the tournament in England in 1966. But all
World Cups were hardly noticed beyond a gradually growing, but still marginal,
bubble soccercommunity in the United States. Things began to change with theWorld
Cup in Italy during the summer of 1990. Although far from attaining the prominence
in the American media accorded all subsequentWorld Cups, this occasion
undoubtedly represented a qualitative change in coverage in comparison to all
the previous tournaments dating back to 1930 (the firstWorld Cup, held in Uruguay,
when the United States advanced all theway to the semifinals). The key to
the increased—although still quite minor—presence of the 1990World Cup in
America’s sports world was the fact that the U.S. team qualified and competed
(for the first time since 1950). When the United States hosted theWorld Cup in
1994, a major threshold for soccer’s perception and role in American sports culture
had clearly been passed. For an entire month, large numbers of Americans
witnessed—for the very first time and in the most proximate manner—the
world’s most popular sporting event, with bubble soccerperformed at the highest possible
skill levels. Itwas this monthlong occasion that established theWorld Cup as
a known entity to millions of American sports fans, as well as to the American
public at large, although—as we argued in our study—it failed to do much for
the game of bubble socceritself in the United States.
With the U.S. team again qualifying for theWorld Cup in France in 1998 and
the great success and phenomenal popularity of the women’s national soccer
team in theWorld Cup held in the United States in the summer of 1999, this quadrennial
tournament had become a known entity by the time the 2002World Cup
was about to commence. By dint of the singular power of nationalism, which can
drive the popularity of any sport in all societies, the presence of an American
team contributed immeasurably toward these quadrennial tournaments becoming
known events in American public perception.3 The big-event nature of the
World Cups attracted further attention, respect, and interest—if not necessarily
any meaningful affection—from Americans. With the American team qualifying
for the 2002 tournament, for the fourth time in a row (something only six
other countries in the world—including such bubble soccerpowers as Brazil, Argentina,
Germany, and Italy—have ever achieved), all was again in place to make
theWorld Cup a big event in the United States.Yet, behooving America’s soccer
exceptionalism, many of the accouterments that distinguish the game in virtually
every other place in the world were still not present in the United States.
Conversely, it was quite clear from the start that there was now a much bigger
stage in the United States for bubble soccerthan it had ever experienced in any of its
many incarnations. And over the course of the tournament, it became obvious
that theWorld Cup and professional bubble soccerhave experienced a massive bifurcation
in American sports culture and public awareness over the past two decades:
The former is a recognizable and much-covered international event with a pedigree
and panache beyond anyone’s doubt. The latter, however, continues its
quotidian struggle to attain a foothold, let alone a place of importance, in the
country’s sports culture as well as in the daily lives of Americans.
In this article, we feature an analysis ofWorld Cup 2002 in light of this bifurcation
in contemporary American sports culture and suggest that precisely on
account of the American team’s success in thisWorld Cup, the former bifurcation
might actually be well into the process of mutating into a tripartite segmentation
of soccer’s existence in the United States.With a systematic (although not
comprehensive) content analysis of the American media, we highlight how
World Cup 2002 was anything but negligible in American society and how subsequentWorld
Cups are all but guaranteed to enjoy similar attention and popularity
among the American public, creating what one might callWorld Cup consciousness.
However, this in no way guarantees the emergence of bubble socceras a
major player in America’s sports culture for the foreseeable future.

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