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Scoring Goals : The World Cup championship game as political parable

July 17, 1994

Who do you like in the World Cup? When Germany played Bulgaria, German Americans backed Germany, Bulgarian Americans and perhaps other Slavic Americans backed Bulgaria. That was fairly predictable. But when the match is between Italy and Brazil, where does the American sentimental allegiance fall? Do we take our stand with Brazil in the Western Hemisphere or with Italy in the Northern? As the eagle flies, Washington is only a little further from Rio than it is from Rome. But these days, which route does the American eagle prefer to fly: east-west or north-south?

Latino sympathy pretty clearly rides with Brazil. " Solos contra el Mundo, " trumpets the headline on the July 14 Nuestro Tiempo, " Brasil el ultimo representante de America ": "Alone against the world, Brazil the last representative of America." America there means the Americas, not the United States. But does pan-American solidarity outweigh Euro-American solidarity? Not for Italian Americans and probably not for most European Americans.

It's fun to think about these matters when nothing more is at stake than the world championship in a sport most Americans don't follow. But the underlying question, a question of national identity, is as rich, and interesting, as it is difficult. Wolf Lepenies, rector of the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg, Germany's equivalent of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, recently greeted a group of visiting Americans with a soccer story. Twenty years ago on his first visit to the United States, he watched a soccer game played on an American football field: "How far apart America and Europe were became painfully clear to me when the announcer excitedly shouted: 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, we have a free kick from the 45-yard line!' "

The distance between football and Fussball (German for soccer) may seem a matter of small moment, but Lepenies linked that memory of his to another. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl held a reception for visiting American foundation heads. Why, he asked, were they so little inclined to get involved in Europe? "You know," came the lapidary answer, "we tend to invest in the more interesting parts of the world."

"This was before 1989," Lepenies adds ruefully. Since 1989, he says, the collapse of communism has not just unleashed long-dormant intra-European hostilities, it has also provoked scarcely foreseeable antipathy toward the United States. No longer needed as the Lady Bountiful of the Marshall Plan or the Captain Courageous of NATO, the United States may now be resented with impunity.

And yet, Lepenies says, the American experience may be more relevant than ever in Europe. He quotes the great 19th-Century German historian Leopold von Ranke, who, refusing to see Europe and the United States as opposites, expressed his view, somewhat astonishingly, as follows: "New York and Lima are growing nearer to us than Kiev and Smolensk." Though Lima may be spiritually a bit further from Berlin now than it was then, New York is closer. As for Kiev and Smolensk, they are at least as distant as ever, the Iron Curtain having been replaced by a Silken Curtain of trade barriers and immigration quotas.

The United States has its own trade and immigration problems, of course, but NAFTA has lowered the trade barriers, and Lepenies sees the European future in the current American immigration struggles rather as Jacob Burghardt, another great 19th-Century German historian, saw "an experiment in the European future" in the multiethnic European state that had come to life in North America.

The question, of course, is whether the United States can manage this feat once again with a population so large and diverse that there is scarcely a World Cup team for which Americans cannot cheer. And yet if we do succeed, ours will be, once again, a historic success.

For now at any rate, let us celebrate historic success that is far less profound: the culmination of a highly successful World Cup tournament in Pasadena's Rose Bowl. May the best team win.

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