How the Response to the Italy vs. U.S. Soccer Game Explains Some European/U.S. Differences

After the U.S. tied Italy in the World Cup in a bloody match that left several players with red cards (kicked out) and various injuries, the commentary fell in one of two camps: a) the Americans displayed heart and valor in the surprising effort or b) “The U.S. team makes its own publicity true and turns the game into war” in an effort that shamed the country and the sport. Roger Cohen, who writes the “Globalist” column in the International Herald Tribune, had a great analysis a few days ago (TimesSelect) about how the two reactions speak to the differences in European and American vernacular and values. He writes, “Europe lives in a post-heroic and post-militaristic culture” whereas “Wars, warriors, blood, and military bases: such images, and locations, are the stuff of everyday American life.” Indeed, the American players were housed at Ramsein Air Base prior to the match and striker Eddie Johnson said the American team is “here for a war” while the goalie Kasey Keller said the nine men left standing in the game “bled today for our country and our team.”

From advertising to the metaphors of high-school sports coaches, the message of life as a battle inseparable from valor, individual heroism, sacrifice, grand dreams and allegiance to the Stars and Stripes is often insistent. In Europe, of course, the vernacular is a very different one. It is, in general, that of a continent that saw too many of its own cut down in the 20th century to see in military heroism anything but a destructive illusion. For Europe, peace is a core value; Americans see the world another way.

Hmm. He doesn’t say “Americans see it the opposite” — which I think is accurate delicacy. It’s not as if peace isn’t a core value for America, it’s one of a few. Cohen continues,

In this age where America cannot go anywhere without stirring controversy, it was inevitable that a football game would stir some more. And the arguments have led me to ponder whether I would rather live in a heroic or post-heroic culture, whether I prefer guileless enthusiasm or sophisticated cynicism. The American quest for heros can easily turn tacky. Hero itself is an overused word…But the instinct behind the tackiness should not be scorned. Europe does scorn very well. It is a reactive power, and what it principally reacts to is the United States. Being the chief protagonist of history is more difficult; you ahve to put yourself forward and you are going to conspicuous mistakes. But I prefer the risk-taking culture that is ready to commit those errors in the name of big ideas to the one that derides the mistakes.

Naturally, Cohen concludes he thought the Italy-America game had an “elemental magnificence.” I didn’t see the game, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the analogy, but I do I think some of the cultural contrasts work. What do you think?

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