Reinforcing National Identity: The Social Impact of Sports

B. D.Contributor IJuly 22, 2010

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 23:  Landon Donovan of the United States celebrates scoring the winning goal that sends the USA through to the second round during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group C match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 23, 2010 in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

National identity is defined as "the depiction of a country as a whole, encompassing its culture, traditions, language, and politics." But like any term or phrase, national identity is open to interpretation.  I remember writing a research paper in a History of the Middle East class last year on how national identity was reinforced through soccer in Iran.  Quite honestly, it was one of the most interesting topics I have ever explored.  

The Iranians were introduced to the game by Englishmen over a century ago.  Ever since, Iran has become a highly competitive squad in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).  In the 1998 World Cup in France, Iran knocked off the United States 2-1, and at the time, it was perhaps the most euphoric moment in contemporary Iran.  Surely the 2-1 win over Israel in the 1968 Asian Cup was a win of greater magnitude, but the win against the United States called for a celebration like no other.  

For those of you familiar with Islamic fundamentalism, you know women are inferior.  The ensuing celebration defied the cultural norms.  Iranian men and women were celebrating together, and the women were not distancing themselves from men or looking downward in the presence of a man.

The behavior of the Iranian fans was not the only thing symbolizing the power of the sport.  The Iranian team was instructed not to engage in pre-game or post-game rituals with United States players.  Iran presented bouquets of white flowers in exchange for souvenir pins before kickoff, and after the game, opposing players swapped jerseys.  During the game, players from both sides were seen helping fallen opponents to their feet after collisions.

Thus, sports do play an integral role in reinforcing national identity and cultivating unity.  

There are countless similarities between the American and Iranian societies.  Prior to 1998, Iran underwent an extreme political overhaul that forever changed their society.  A revolution, civil war, economic turmoil, radical political agendas, natural disasters, and imperialistic endeavors are just a few commonalities between Iran and the United States.  

It has been over 230 years since the American Revolution began and 145 years since the American Civil War ended.  In the past decade, the United States can certainly relate to the economic turmoil.  The new health care reform could be considered a radical political agenda.  Two wars are being fought in the Middle East right now, and whether or not this is a form of American imperialism is open for debate.  Natural disasters?  Well, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes happen all the time in America.  Sometimes these events leave everlasting imprints of destruction in their wake.  

For example:  Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped up the Gulf Coast with the former ravaging Southeast Louisiana, Coastal Mississippi and Alabama, while the latter completely wiped out several communities in Southwestern Louisiana.  Florida was slammed time after time by enormous hurricanes, and Texas was also affected by some storms.  Nashville just experienced a flood of Biblical proportions.  The BP oil spill is the latest disaster to strike the United States.  Wildfires are a recurring problem in California.  We could go on for hours about natural disasters.  

In any case, the members of the 1998 Iranian national team will be forever remembered for their heroic triumph over the United States.  Looking back on it now, all I can do is laugh.  After skimming through articles written by Iranian journalists the day after the win, I can't help myself.  ABC basically had a pre-game show that wreaked of propaganda.  Instead of focusing on relevant information about the teams competing in the match and the tactical advantages and disadvantages each side had, the network chose to broadcast negative depictions of Iran in every way imaginable.

Thank goodness this year's World Cup provided excellent pre-game, halftime, and post-game commentary, as well as insightful play-by-play and color commentary during the matches.  

So how does the Iranian triumph over the United States in '98 compare to the saga of Team USA in 2010?  While Iranians had roughly 45 years of mounted frustrations, the United States only had a decade of misfortunes.  There was 9/11; Katrina and Rita in 2005, along with a multitude of natural disasters throughout the land over the course of the decade; the economic collapse and ongoing financial crises; political corruption and dissension among American citizens because of political feuds; the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, etc...  To simplify things:  Americans, just like Iranians, needed something positive.  Something to inspire them to become better people.  Something to ignite the flame of patriotism and unify a nation that has become more divided than ever.  

For whatever reason, the 2010 World Cup had a more electric atmosphere than previous tournaments.  Perhaps it was South Africa--still recovering from apartheid and still trying to overcome extreme poverty--hosting the event.  This was symbolism of a nation persevering and moving forward.  Team USA was pitted against the likes of England, Slovenia, and Algeria in group play, and they were surely expected to advance to the knockout rounds.  Drawing England in the first match felt like victory.  The comeback against Slovenia was remarkable, but because of a very questionable call, we were robbed of a win.  It was like a boxer landing a right hook to your jaw, but you maintained your balance and pressed on.  At the time I was bitter, but we were still in it.

Multiple scenarios were brought to our attention, and at the very least, a draw could possibly get us through to the next stage.  Our opponent would have been the Germans in the round of sixteen.  That would have been fine with me because it would have given us a shot at redemption.  Germany knocked us out in the quarterfinals in 2002, and a win against them in 2010 would have been huge.

Nonetheless, winning the match would clinch a spot in the next round.  The 2-2 draw against the Slovenians set the stage for the most dramatic 90 minutes of soccer and the greatest moment in the history of the US Men's National Team.  The imagery and symbolism in the Algeria match were unquestionably the greatest representations of the American identity.  

At 9:30 that morning, I was as giddy as a child on Christmas Day, ready for the day's festivities to begin...

But when Clint Dempsey's goal was disallowed, frustration set in.  The happiness quickly faded.  It was still early.  We had time to make things right.  It was a questionable offside called on Dempsey, and it came as no surprise.  Good officiating in the 2010 World Cup is almost oxymoronic.  

As time ticked away, it appeared as though the United States would take another early exit from the tournament.  Reviving the memorable run in the 2002 World Cup seemed highly unlikely.  Ninety minutes elapsed, and still, the two sides were locked in a scoreless match.  

Four additional minutes were added, but barring a miraculous effort, this was it.

I started thinking to myself:  "Well, there's always 2014 in Brazil.  Beating Spain 2-0 and almost knocking off Brazil in the Confederations Cup was awesome to watch last summer."

England beat the Slovenians to clinch a spot, but the fate of both the United States and Slovenia rested on the outcome of USA-Algeria.  The past decade's disasters and misfortunes in this country all seemed to cycle through my mind as I watched the match enter the final minutes of play.

The vicious blow to the mouth of Clint Dempsey that left him bleeding infuriated me.  So that was still fresh on my mind.  A flagrant foul and yet another display of blatant disregard by the referee.  Sure I was angry with the offside call on Dempsey.  It not only denied him of a goal, it denied the United States a 1-0 lead.  At this point, with Clint bleeding, the score 0-0, and only four minutes left, my frustration was exacerbated.  

I realized the blood coming from the busted lip of Dempsey was somewhat symbolic.  Even more symbolic was the fact he was still battling.  He knew the referee would serve him no justice.  Rather than giving up, Clint relentlessly fought on like a wounded soldier.  He wasn't going to let a horrible call and a little blood from his lips stop him. 

How many times have we (Americans) been pushed to the ground or punched in the mouth?  And of those times, how many times did we throw in the towel or say, "The hell with it?"  Americans are known for their resilience and ability to persevere, and Dempsey certainly lived up to that reputation.  

Then, in the first minute of added time, IT happened...

Tim Howard with the save off the header... quickly gets it up field to Donovan... an all-out attack on the goal moving swiftly down field... Donovan with the short pass to his right... a cross to Dempsey who falls over the goalkeeper after being denied... rebound to Donovan...

Time stood still.  A snapshot of the ball striking the back of the net off the foot of Landon Donovan is forever captured in my mind.  I was as awestruck as the Algerian defenders.  I may have been just as awestruck as the Algerian goalkeeper who gave it his best effort to deny the United States of a goal.  

As Donovan raced toward the corner and slid headfirst onto the turf, he was mobbed in celebration by his teammates.  Then, I realized what just happened.  The line at the top read:  USA 1  ALG 0

Ian Darke said it best:  

"Oh, it's incredible!  You could not write a script like this!  Oh, it's incredible!"

Indeed it was, Ian.  Indeed it was.  

Donovan's game-winning goal helped the United States win the group and advance to the knockout rounds, and like Dempsey, Donovan embodied the American identity, only in a more collective sense.  The American "never-say-die" bravado became manifest in the 91st minute of play in Pretoria, South Africa.  

Watching "The World's Reaction" to Donovan's goal on YouTube shows the power of sport in a sociological sense.  Local bars and pubs were rocking.  Even a street corner with onlookers watching through the window of a store were seen celebrating in broad daylight.  

This event made me stop and realize how powerful sports are in today's society.  The moment Landon Donovan drove the ball into the back of the net, the world stood still.  It unified Americans across the globe.  I'm usually waking up around the time the game started.  I woke up two and a half hours early to go out and get a newspaper and my morning coffee just so I wouldn't miss a minute.  I'm sure glad I made that decision.  The US winning the game made waking up that early well worth it.  

Even though we were knocked out by Ghana in the round of sixteen, we remained competitive until the very end.  It is my hope that soccer will continue to grow in popularity here in the States.  The race is on at this point.  A team from a region other than Europe or South America is destined to hoist the trophy once the final whistle blows.  So why not us?  

We've heard about change for quite some time now.  We're still waiting on this so-called change to take place.  If a sport like soccer can provide a moment that unifies this nation the way it did on June 23, 2010, that works just fine for me.  I think I speak on behalf of a great number of Americans when I say that's the kind of change I want to see; something that brings people together and not something radical that will lead to further tension among divided sides.  Furthermore, once the global community realizes varying peoples from varying cultures can peacefully coexist, things will be much better off than they are right now.  It may be cliché, but... "United we stand, divided we fall."


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