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The game is still a national identity

I'm on the eve of a quick tourist trip to Paris, and I leave in a perplexed frame of mind. How can it be that a major European capital has only one big soccer team? And even Paris Saint-Germain, founded in 1970, is a recent arrival, with little tradition.

Coming from England, I find this hard to understand. I was born into a culture where soccer (it hurts not to call it football) has a central part to play in the existence of millions. In my case, my father was -- by his own accounts, at least -- a fair-quality amateur player. As his first son, I was expected to fulfill his dreams of on-the-pitch achievement. I inherited the enthusiasm, but none of the talent.

Besides spending untold hours playing it, soccer shaped my youth in fundamental ways. It's how I learned to read -- I wanted to understand the biographical information on the players in the sticker cards. Its global nature gave me a sense of geography. The son of parents who had never been abroad, I could even spell Czechoslovakia at an early age -- how could you not know a country that had reached two World Cup finals? In short, the game was part of my very identity, and of millions like me.

Soccer wove itself into the fabric of the country of the first industrial revolution. Many of the pioneering clubs, for example, were from the mill towns of Lancashire. Its relationship with industrial society defined so much of the history of English soccer. When workers gained the right to Saturday afternoons off, that time was devoted to football. The game, in its mass form, was the product of industrial society.

The crisis years of English soccer -- the 1980s, when many thought it was dying -- coincided with the crisis of the nation's industry. And the extraordinary success of contemporary English soccer is also connected. In a country that can appear to have turned into a giant post-industrial theme park, today's comfortable stadiums offer -- in a sanitized manner -- the chance for people to reconnect with the collective values of the industrial age.

The industrial society also had a huge impact on how the game was played. As the first country to go through the process, English industrialization was, of necessity, labor-intensive. And just as the attributes of muscle power and reliability were highly valued on the factory floor or down the mine shaft, they also were on the soccer field.

The beauty of the game, though -- and surely the secret of its extraordinary global success -- is that it can be interpreted in different ways. Soccer, it's so often said, is a simple game. But the simplicity hides a multitude of complexities. A player can pass the ball forward, backward or sideways, on the ground or in the air, long or short, right foot or left foot. Or he need not pass at all. He can go on a dribble. The end result of these myriad options is that different cultures can express themselves through their approach to the game.

In South America, where I have now been based for 15 years, soccer is an affair of the state -- as shown by the recent moves in Argentina whereby the TV rights to the domestic game look set to be nationalized. The reasons for this historic importance are fourfold.

First, soccer was introduced by the British, and thus came with First World prestige. Second, it was then reinterpreted by the locals, who instead of the hard-running, muscular Christian school of the British, developed a more balletic, graceful game perfect for the player with a low center of gravity. Third, this reinterpretation led to international triumph and recognition for a region starved of such things. And fourth, all this took place at a time of rapid urbanization in South America -- and also, in those countries of the South Cone in which the game took the strongest hold, at a time of or soon after mass immigration. For a new population, soccer provided a new, urban language of integration and identification.

Perhaps in the case of France, its industrial revolution was slower and less complete than that of the British. And maybe French culture is so strong and so internationally recognized that soccer could never play the South American role of representative of the nation. In the specific case of Paris, there's the city's own history, and its identification after the suppression of the Commune in the 1870s as a citadel of bourgeois society -- uncomfortable soil for soccer to grow.

Even so, soccer still has the power to speak to the French, to tell them something about themselves and provoke debate on their identity. The most famous case, of course, is the 1998 World Cup-winning side, in which many of the players were of African or Arab origin. This was the new, multicultural France in action, and the racist far right did not see it as their representative. The performances of the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly raised discussion about what it meant to be French at the turn of the millennium.

Now refocus that across the Atlantic to a place I have never been: the United States. From a distance, it seems clear that soccer has taken huge strides in the U.S. The national team is not particularly exciting or inspiring, but it is competent and competitive. MLS is now well-established, with average crowd figures that are, at times, higher than the first division in Brazil, for example.

But here's the question, posed in the spirit of curiosity with no preconceived notions. Clearly the U.S. is big enough and rich enough to sustain a viable soccer league. But will it ever go further? (Indeed, has it already gone further?) In the same way that soccer talks to the British and the South Americans and tells us much about who are, can the game conceivably become important to the identity of North Americans?

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