The thrill of World Cup nationalism

Team USA isn't very good — and it doesn't really matter

World Cup
(Image credit: (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images))

The United States' men's soccer team entered the World Cup as the 13th best team in the world, per FIFA. Ghana, by contrast, came in as the 37th-ranked team. And yet, when the Americans went up 2-1 en route to vanquishing the Black Stars in a thrilling affair Monday, fans across the U.S. exploded like we'd just one the whole danged tournament, like David had slain Goliath with an improbable header.

Similar scenes unfolded in bars, plazas, malls, parks, offices, and living rooms around the nation. Vice President Joe Biden did his best Joe Biden impersonation, back-slapping and glad-handing his way around the team's locker room in the post-victory afterglow.

Sure, some of the bombastic reveling was catharsis for the misery Ghana inflicted on the U.S. in the past two tournaments. But the fervor of the outpouring eschewed the fact that the U.S. team is — well, it's not that great. As my colleague Ryu Spaeth noted, the U.S. "played about as badly as you could play while still winning." And at the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, I'd have to agree.

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But to that, I'd also have to add: Who cares? And does it matter? For while the U.S. team isn't particularly exciting, the pulsating thrill of World Cup nationalism certainly is.

In sociology speak, the communal exuberance of a shared social experience is called collective effervescence. It's what turns the simple act of watching sports into the profound act of Watching Sports, what binds fellow fans into a body greater than themselves. Every stranger is suddenly your best friend — provided they wear the right colors — and you have an inexhaustible reserve of high-fives and hugs.

That feeling is amplified by the World Cup, as the collective fan base expands beyond provincial boundaries to encompass the entire nation. No longer are you rooting for your hometown team; you're rooting for your country.

Sure, that's a bit jingoistic. But a little jingoism is inherent in any global sporting event of this magnitude. And here's the simple truth: Rooting along with millions of otherwise disparate people is damn fun. Screaming your head off with dozens of patrons packed into a steamy bar, throwing your arms (and beer) in the air with a carefree whoop, going totally off-the-wall bonkers with every shot and save and dive and tackle and cross is fun.

"But soccer is boring," the critics whine. "Americans don't even like the sport," they continue, still whining.

The first point couldn't be more wrong. And as to the latter, it doesn't matter during the World Cup. The rules are simple: Put the ball in the net, but not with your hands. Anyone can understand that and get caught up in the rollicking experience of following a game, jammed in alongside all the other red- white- and blue-bedecked revelers.

Americans may be finally coming around on soccer, too. A recent survey found it to be the second most popular sport among 12-24 year olds. Meaning, America's comparatively paltry soccer fan base is growing, and with it, too, is the excitement of being a part of it.

And even if Americans don't give a moment's thought to soccer until tournament time rolls around, there is still something undeniably infectious about bandwagon fans emerging like quadrennial cicadas every four years to punctuate the air with droning calls of USA! USA! It doesn't matter if they know jack about the 4-4-2 formation and think a goalkeeper is someone who follows through on New Year's resolutions. Americans may not be the most knowledgeable soccer fans, but they know how to celebrate with the best of them.

The U.S. men's soccer may not be very good, but the passionate, if short-lived, fandom it inspires is absolutely awesome.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.