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In soccer, U.S. still battling uphill

It's been a tough week for Europeans who hate America's growing influence in world soccer. First, ESPN acquired the rights to show some English Premier League games -- in England. Then, the U.S. men's national team outthought and outmuscled the world's top-ranked team, Spain, 2-0 in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup in South Africa.

Like the American ownership of Premier League teams Liverpool, Manchester United and Aston Villa, the ESPN deal represents a symbolic change, but it's just business. The network has had an international presence for years. Showing games from the world's most lucrative soccer league in its home country is a crucial step in the network's quest to expand its global footprint. According to reports, ESPN will pay about $145 million for 46 matches from ailing broadcaster Setanta in the 2009-10 season and about $260 million for separate packages of 23 games a year for three years starting in 2010-11.

But for American fans tired of the persistent transatlantic mocking of U.S. soccer, even a business deal can be sweetly ironic. Consider that during the '02 World Cup, the Web site of England's The Guardian newspaper live-blogged the second-round U.S.-Mexico game as if were being called by American commentators. "Two soccer points to no score!" Well, now the ugly American of sports broadcasting, Disney-owned ESPN, controls the rights to show your vaunted Premier League in your homeland. Maybe Joe Morgan can call a few games.

Years of reporting on sports and the usual life-is-elsewhere march into middle age have subdued my fanatic impulses. I don't root openly very much these days, and when I do, it's from a sort of Pavlovian nostalgia to my Yankees-Giants-Knicks-Rangers childhood or a curiosity about an athlete I know or an appreciation for a particular style of play. I'd much rather watch a great performance than worry about who wins.

With one exception: the U.S. men's national soccer team. In the press box, I can be as objective as necessary, but I also will gladly scream alongside Sam's Army, wear my bright-red U.S. Soccer shirt (I'm wearing it now), leap from the couch and pump my fists like Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines and care, really care, about the outcome. And when the U.S. team does something spectacular -- like beating Portugal and Mexico, and nearly Germany in '02, or Spain on Wednesday -- I am on a jingoistic high. Screw you, soccer snobs of the world. Still think we can't play?

It's not simply that the U.S. men are underdogs on the world stage. Despite the advances of the past 20 years, the U.S. is still a generation or more away from consistently fielding a team of artists like the Spanish side it beat -- a team that hadn't lost in 35 games dating to back November '06, and had won a record 15 straight. Knowledgeable U.S. soccer fans know that, and appreciate the beauty and grace and skill -- especially the first-touch -- of the world's best sides. That's why so many U.S. soccer sophisticates choose to watch European leagues over our own domestic version.

What brings out the angry flag-waver in me is the historical arrogance in Europe and, to a lesser extent, other soccer powerhouses, toward the U.S. More Americans than ever play overseas -- 81, according to the Web site Yanks Abroad -- many of them logging serious minutes; the Spanish club Villarreal paid $10 million last year to acquire American striker Jozy Altidore, who scored the first goal against Spain.

U.S. youth teams have done well internationally. The senior men's team reached the World Cup quarterfinals in '02. And yet Europeans cling to the old notion that America is a soccer backwater, that because Americans like other sports more, because our domestic league is second-tier, it doesn't deserve to do well. Success, when it happens and when it's noticed, is attributed to the other team's B-team lineup or indifference or bad luck. Praise is grudging.

Of course, those sorts of reactions say as much about Europe's complicated feelings toward the U.S. as they do about soccer. The Wall Street Journal recently polled 18,000 people in Europe, Russia and the U.S. about attitudes toward American culture and political influence. Among Europeans, 32 percent of respondents said America's cultural influence on the world was negative, compared to 26 percent who said it was positive. America's political influence was viewed as overwhelmingly negative.

"You get this constant mocking, not so much because of the soccer but because of everything else," says Romanian-born U.S. soccer fan AndreiMarkovits, a University of Michigan professor who studies the cultural relationship between Europe and the U.S. "But it bleeds into the soccer. It comes out as this anger, this derision. It's constant and relentless." It's also unique to the U.S., Markovits points out. "They're not arrogant toward South Korea -- or Mexico, for that matter," he says.

The simple explanation for European snobbery is that soccer has been the one thing the rest of the world has done better than the U.S. Do we have to take that too? When the Americans do well, that's threatening, and responding with snark to that threat is a natural defense. As my friend Franklin Foer, author of How Soccer Explains the World, has pointed out, nothing will make the old soccer world more angry and insecure than when the U.S. wins the World Cup -- and the vast majority of Americans shrug their shoulders.

Still, it's also a natural response for American fans to feel especially giddy when their team knocks off one of the elites. It's viscerally satisfying. I look forward to the next time it happens; Sunday against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final would be nice. But I also know the day will come when Europeans will have no choice but to admit the U.S. to its club, regardless of whether soccer obtains the same cultural cachet here as elsewhere. (It won't, but that has to do with the size of the U.S., the sheer number of sports and history -- other sports were here first, especially ones we invented.)

After the Spain game, I canvassed the European coverage and slogged through a bunch of message boards. Apart from a few postgame comments about the result being a one-in-10 aberration, the Spanish coach and players were praiseworthy of their opponents -- especially of the Americans' solid defensive play.

The European media was, too. The BBC praised the "superior athleticism" of the Americans. Soccer governing body FIFA's Web site called the Americans "ambitious, almost insolent" and their victory "historic." The aforementioned Guardian featured a serious and smart blog post about the steady progress of U.S. soccer, noting that that 16 of the 23 Americans on the squad that beat Spain play in Europe. Yes, there were plenty of predictable message-board comments about how the U.S. got lucky or Spain didn't care, but many European fans acknowledged the team's spirited and strategically intelligent performance.

Of course, this was just one game, and one game won't -- and shouldn't -- change the dominant, rational perception of U.S. soccer: getting better but not there yet. I'm not sure whether, as a fan, it'll be more fun to be welcomed into the club or to remain the spiteful, aggrieved outsider. But it'll be nice some day to find out.

Stefan Fatsis is the author, most recently, of A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, out in paperback this summer. Contact him at sfatsis9@gmail.com.

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