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Kerry Has a Deep, Dark Secret: Soccer

Well, the game is bad politics, but it could be good foreign policy.

July 12, 2004|Franklin Foer | Franklin Foer is an associate editor at the New Republic, a contributing editor at New York Magazine and author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization" (HarperCollins, 2004).

For yellow-dog Democrats, one part of the Kerry campaign has been a particular joy. Whereas some of our presidential candidates have been lampooned as weak-kneed, girlie-men, Kerry has starred in an array of photo ops illustrating his manliness. Here he is playing hockey with Boston Bruin legends. There he is holding a shotgun with the casual ease of Steve McQueen. The campaign even travels with a bike, never missing an opportunity to slip their man into a helmet and spandex.

But there's a chapter from John F. Kerry's sporting biography that remains curiously uninvoked in this montage: his days as a soccer player. Although he was only an average hockey player, he distinguished himself as a soccer star. At Yale, he made the varsity squad and even scored a hat trick against Harvard. So, why isn't Kerry juggling soccer balls or practicing penalty kicks for the cameras? Mr. Kerry, why are you running from your record?

One possible explanation is characterological. Four Four Two, a British soccer magazine, has investigated Kerry's soccer career. Unfortunately, it confirmed the worst stereotype about Kerry: He isn't very decisive.

According to classmates, Kerry preferred dribbling around defenders, rather than using passes to advance the ball. His school team's Scottish manager would urge him not to "diddle with the ball." Apparently, this exhortation stuck as a nickname, "the Diddler."

Others teammates, mostly Democrats, are more sympathetic. They describe Kerry as a good team player, but they still poke fun at his loping stride. His other soccer nickname is "the Camel."

Kerry is probably running from soccer for another reason: The game is bad politics. Republicans will portray Kerry as an out-of-touch elitist. They will make hay of his days in a Swiss boarding school. Leading Republicans relentlessly rib him for "looking French." Soccer, let's face it, won't help him rebut this charge.

Sure, soccer moms have long been treated as political gold. But the name doesn't really fit. They may chauffeur kids to practice, but most couldn't give a toss about soccer.

And even if soccer moms were fanatical about the sport, politicians would still steer clear of it. That's because there's a deep anti-soccer strain in this country. Thick-necked football coaches have spread a nasty form of agitprop. They claim that soccer players are guys too cowardly to tackle a running back.

Unfortunately, these yokels have wielded disproportionate influence on the American mind. The popular sports shock jock Jim Rome, for instance, routinely denounces the game. To quote almost at random from him: "My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball."

On a few occasions, conservatives have tried to exploit this sentiment. As former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp once intoned, "Soccer is a European socialist [sport]."

Political scientists haven't yet identified soccer haters as a crucial swing voting group. But the group exists. To win, Kerry will have to make headway in industrial and rural Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan -- places where soccer-hating seems to flourish. I'm afraid that if Kerry were to highlight his love of the game, these voters would consider it akin to stating that U.S. foreign policy requires a French permission slip.

But what may be bad politics will make for good policy. If he wields soccer properly, Kerry could use soccer to heal rifts in the world. One can imagine Kerry sweet-talking Jacques Chirac by lavishing praise on the French midfielder Zinedine Zidane. He could coax Spanish troops back to Iraq with descriptions of Real Madrid games watched in the White House.

So, how should soccer fans deal with the cold shoulder that Kerry has thrown our way? I think we should quietly accept our fate, while extracting a promise in return. We should demand that Kerry raze the T-ball field built by George W. Bush and replace it with goal posts.

Many soccer fans, I suspect, are dying to see the Diddler bury the ball in the back of the White House net.

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