When Jurgen Klinsmann got the job as coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team we knew what we were getting. A World Cup winner as a player and former coach of an overachieving German World Cup team, he was expected to bring something refreshing and different to the national team. Boy did he.
I’m not talking about his attacking philosophy, the diamond midfield, or favoring youth over aging stars going to far as dumping the best American soccer player ever out of the WC squad.
Nope, when Klinsmann said the U.S. can’t win this World Cup, he violated a bedrock American trait: blinding optimism.
You never, ever tell a (real) American they can’t win. Red coats and the greatest empire this world’s ever seen? We put our money on a ragtag bunch of farmers and merchants with muskets. A wild West full of Indians, killer weather, unforgiving terrain, and utter isolation? Give us a covered wagon and we’re good. Afghanistan, a region where no forced in human history has ever tamed? Pssshhh. . .we’ll be in and out in 3 weeks after we show them the wonders of democracy.
Not win the World Cup? We don’t want to hear it. We’re a country of swashbuckling Han Solos: Never tell us the odds. Can you blame us? Our history tells us we shall overcome. That’s why Vietnam felt so earth shattering back in the day. Lose? How is that possible.
But even that didn’t dampen our optimism. The story now is that if we’d just committed more money or troops we’d have won. Or if the hippies hadn’t undermined the war effort. Or if the South Vietnamese had been more committed.
Sounds a lot like talk around soccer in America. “If our best athletes focused on soccer we’d rule.” “If we cared we’d win.” “If Americans cared more about soccer we’d be top 10 every year.”
Can you blame us, though? The U.S. is the richest country on earth, so if money helps win soccer, we can do that. We also have the third most populous nation on earth, so our talent pool is deep. We have so much money and free time that we might actually be able to support a fifth major sports league (most countries can only manage one).
But our optimism goes deeper than that. Now, when we turn on the tap clean, drinking water comes out every time. Crime is down. We aren’t surrounded by shanty towns and poor street beggars. Heck, our streets our clean, our roads are safe and fast, and we actually believe if you work hard you can succeed. Everyone here that matters thinks they can get rich (which might go some way to explaining why middle people still vote for lower taxes for the rich—they actually think might make more than $250k a year someday). Perhaps, most importantly, we’re a nation of self-selected immigrants who believed things would get better even if we left behind family, culture, and (sometimes) language and made this (foreign) country our home. It may be a hard knock life for us (sometimes), but the sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar!
That’s not the way most the rest of the world sees it. It’s a lot harder to be so rosy if you know a sweatshop worker, chat with a subsistence farmer, don’t go out after dark because you’re afraid of getting robbed, or your country has lost an empire (e.g. England) or been overwhelmed by invading neighbors (nearly all of Europe). No wonder we seem kind of naive to the rest of the world.
While optimism can help make you daring and great, it can also mask some pretty serious problems. Our kids are overly optimistic about their math skills, for example. How much of their deficiency might be cured by a little dose of reality?
What’s amazing is this optimistic vein runs so deep that Klinsmann got in trouble for saying out loud something everyone already knows (“For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic.”) was seen as a controversy. Sure, we know winning is unrealistic, just don’t verbalize it.
Coward? Lack of leadership? Fearful? Those were all judgment words that came from a deep, cultural place. Look at the Landon Donovan’s more delusional statement and then contemplate the non-reaction:
“This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen,” said Donovan. . . “As someone who’s been in that locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — ‘We believe that we will win.’ I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.”
There’s no backlash to Donavan because (real) Americans think they can win. Even if they don’t, they keep it to themselves because, you know, if you ignore it it might not be true.
Kilnsmann is an immigrant. The fact that he married an American, has an American son, and lives in it-never-rains Southern California couldn’t mold him into an American Pollyanna. He just can’t shake his realistic German cultural roots. Likewise, the fact that America still lacks the players, skill, and the know-how to realistically win a World Cup also won’t free us from our optimism. That’d be un-American.