American Soccer’s Steady Journey from Periphery to Core Where Germany Has Comfortably Resided for Decades

Andrei Markovits

University of Michigan

Andrei S. Markovits is an Arthur F. Thurnau and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Even though Germany and the United States will share their presence—with Ghana and Portugal—in Group G (aka the Group of Death) at the forthcoming World Cup in Brazil, and even though they will play against each other on June 26 in Recife, the tournament’s cultural importance, social significance, emotional involvement and overall ramifications will be very different for each of the two teams and countries.

The “Big Four” Comprising Current American “Sports Space”

Association Football—“football” (or its national variant like “Fussball”) to much of the world, but known by its nineteenth century English university student slang term of “soccer” in the United States as well as other countries, like Australia, in which “football” denotes a related but different game—has a completely different cultural presence in the United States than in Germany. To wit: the normal and average American sports fan’s preoccupation in the months of April and May were as follows: the culmination of March Madness ending the five-months-long college basketball season; the beginnings of the all-important playoffs in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) leading to the crowning of the champion in both; the commencing of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) six-month long annual campaign; and the draft of the National Football League (NFL), which culminated two-months of national obsession and debate in a television extravaganza that attracted more than 12 million television viewers to an event where nothing actually happened beyond former college players appearing in eight-minute intervals, donning caps of the professional teams that drafted them, shaking the commissioner’s hand, and hugging their mothers.

This, then, is the scenario in the United States of what has been termed “sports space” meaning the cultural construct that defines what a vast majority of a country’s public follows rather than plays. This is the world meant by the expression “The Big Four” or the “four major North American sports” constantly invoked by the millions conversant with North America’s dominant sports culture. Indeed, with the possible exception of Australia, no country other than the United States has four such items—a few have three, many have two, and most have only one, that being soccer. But soccer is not among these in the American case—at least at the time of this writing—though it might very well be on its way to creating what will then become “The Big Five” in the coming decade or so. And the impending World Cup will play an absolutely crucial role in the timing of this development if not in its overall outcome.

The “Huge One” Comprising Current German “Sports Space”

Contrast this situation to Germany’s. The normal and average sports fan has been totally preoccupied solely with soccer on all its stages. First, and foremost, there was the weekly Bundesliga which, though made totally boring and predictable by Bayern München’s impressive brilliance that had the team clinch its 24th title in record time, still had crucial contests with much drama both on top and the bottom of the table. Then there were the very important cup ties (Pokal Spiele) culminating in the final in Berlin featuring yet another dream contest between archrivals Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund, without any doubt Germany’s two most dominant soccer teams of the past decade, with the former prevailing decisively, thus attaining its 17th “Pokal” and once again winning the much-coveted domestic “double.” Then there was the UEFA Champions League in which all four German teams advanced into the knock out round with Borussia reaching the quarterfinals and Bayern the semis. And last, there is the ever-present “Nationalmannschaft”—affectionately and tellingly known by all simply as “Mannschaft”—whose importance and urgency increases by every minute that brings the World Cup tournament closer.

Core, Semi Periphery and Periphery

Of course there is a steadily increasing number of people in the United States following soccer on its many domestic and foreign levels, just like the North American “Big Four” can claim a growing number of aficionados and experts in Germany. The previous description focused on each country’s norm—the core of its hegemonic sports culture—that has been defined by a history and tradition that reach in the American case into the middle of the nineteenth century and the German to the very beginning of the twentieth. And sure enough, in the sports that comprise each country’s cultural core, both countries constitute a global core. Thus, in baseball, basketball, American football, and ice hockey, it is the top leagues in North America that attract the world’s absolute best. The great Dirk Nowitzki plies his trade and passion in the NBA not the Basketball Bundesliga, as do the comparable best basketball players from France, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and many other countries. The same pertains to the best German, Swiss, Austrian, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Fin, and Swedish hockey players and Japanese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Venezuelan, and Dominican baseball players.

In the Big Four, North America comprises the core with the others constituting what Immanuel Wallerstein in his seminal work has come to call the semi periphery and periphery. The exact opposite situation exists in soccer. Here, Europe’s top five leagues located in England, Spain, Italy, France, and—of course—Germany are the game’s core with the rest of the world being the semi periphery and periphery. The world’s best footballers want to play in these countries. Thus, it is not by chance that the two best American field players Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley played in England and Italy, respectively, and that Jürgen Klinsmann, the coach of the United States national team, was less than happy when they transferred their talents from the game’s core to its semi periphery by joining teams in Major League Soccer (MLS) where the quality of play is simply not up to the core’s level.

Soccer’s Journey in the United States

The journey for soccer in the United States has been from the game’s peripheries in both senses of that term in that since the early 1930s until the end of the twentieth century soccer in America had been only present on the periphery of the country’s hegemonic sports culture and, closely tied to this phenomenon, also appeared only on the periphery of this sport’s global presence. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that the institutional presence of the Big Four and their organizational and cultural establishment preceding soccer’s contributed to the former’s rise and proliferation to comprise the core of America’s sports culture and to soccer’s relegation to that culture’s margins. But the long journey departing from this periphery commenced in the early 1970s with a number of crucial developments: first, the establishment of the North American Soccer League (NASL) that, despite its eventual demise in 1985, introduced top-level soccer to an American public that was in the process of undergoing a serious cultural shift and social change. By featuring players of the game’s core stardom such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Johan Cruyff among many others, and by creating the world’s first truly globalized sports team of any kind in the New York Cosmos that presaged the current norm of multiculturalism and the bevy of different nationalities that populate any of the game’s top teams in its European core—or of the top baseball, hockey and basketball teams as well—soccer attained a stage that appeared stealthily at the time but that placed crucial seeds into the American cultural ground that were to grow later.

Second, the advent of Title IX in 1972 that totally altered the topography of the culturally all-important space of college sports in the United States by introducing women to this world in a massive way. It was this that led to the women’s game becoming the absolute best in the world yielding not only culturally recognized and much-respected public figures of the likes of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain among others, but also to the attainment of four Olympic gold medals and two World Cups that is only rivaled by Germany’s two trophies in that competition. Thus, in notable contrast to the men’s side, the United States is very much a core player in the global presence of the women’s game.

Third, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which arguably represents at least as crucial a progressive reform that transformed the United States as Lyndon Baines Johnson’s rightly touted Voting Rights Act of the same year and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, substantially increased Latin immigration to the United States creating a constituency for soccer in this country that remains a crucial part of its core to this very day.

Fourth, the aforementioned cultural shift and social change led to a huge proliferation of soccer being played in an organized manner by over 13 million in the United States, making it the third most popular sport behind basketball and baseball/softball. To be sure, performing a sport is only tangentially related to following it. To wit: most Olympic sports are only followed quadrennially by people outside the narrow circles of their actual purveyors and their immediate supporters. And they are followed on that occasion for one sole reason: nationalism, thus confirming that sage Jerry Seinfeld’s brilliant point that our following sports essentially means the following of laundry.

The U.S. National Team’s Strong German Connection

When at the last World Cup held in Brazil, the United States defeated all-mighty England 1 – 0 on June 29, 1950 in Belo Horizonte—arguably an even bigger upset than the famed “Miracle of Bern” four years later that catapulted West Germany to the first of its three World Cup titles by beating the heavily favored Magnificent Magyars of Ferenc Puskas and pals—soccer in America and American soccer were on the periphery. But by virtue of having hosted the World Cup with the largest attendance that will, most likely, never be surpassed in 1994; by virtue of having started Major League Soccer in 1996 that in the meantime has become a solid, if not yet dominant, player in America’s sports space; by virtue of the national team’s respectable showing at the World Cup tournaments in 2002 and 2010; and by virtue of a massive improvement in the quality of soccer played by American athletes at the top level of their game; soccer in the contemporary United States has definitely left its peripheral stage behind and is well ensconced with many other nations in the respectability of a semi peripheral existence. But it will take the national team’s steady successes at top-level tournaments, like the impending World Cup in Brazil and the Copa America competition to be held all across the United States in the summer of 2016, for American soccer to enter both cores: domestically by pulling even with the current Big Four in the United States; and internationally by entering the game’s current core, which would also mean that top-level European and Latin American players would not only consider playing in MLS as a default option or as a comfortable way to their retirement from the game but actually see this option as one of their top choices alongside those offered by any of Europe’s top five leagues.

Interestingly, Germany’s role in potentially helping the United States make giant strides in that direction is undeniable. Not only was Jürgen Klinsmann, the American national team’s coach, one of German soccer’s most prolific strikers; but his recently hired assistant, Hans-Hubert “Berti” Vogts, was arguably the country’s best right back (at least until Philipp Lahm), a Borussia Moenchengladbach legend, and a mainstay of the Nationalmannschaft both as a player and its coach. And if one adds the Austrian Andreas “Andy” Herzog, who played the most productive portion of his distinguished career for Werder Bremen and Bayern München, into the mix, a German leadership of the American endeavor is nearly perfect. Add to that eight players on the current thirty-man roster who were either born in Germany, play for German clubs, and speak much better German than English, and the present United States national soccer team could easily be characterized as “Germany lite.”

For very different reasons, the impending World Cup will be huge for both the German and American teams that will actually confront each other in the third game of the first round in a group rightly given the sobriquet “Group of Death.” For the German team, the hopes and expectations of an entire nation ride on its performance and eventual results. No such burden rests on the Americans. Instead, their results will have a major bearing on the timing of soccer’s eventual entry into the core of the American sports space.


Andrei S. Markovits is an Arthur F. Thurnau and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of the following major books on sports and soccer: Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) with Stephen Hellerman; Querpass: Sport und Politik im transatlantischen Raum (Goettingen: Verlag die Werkstatt, 2007) with Lars Rensmann; Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) with Lars Rensmann; Sport: Motor und Impulssystem fuer Emanzipation und Diskriminierung (Vienna: Picus Verlag, 2011) and Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012) with Emily Albertson.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.