Andrew Skerritt: World Cup links us to a piece of our immigration heritage

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Maybe columnist Ann Coulter was on to something when she wrote: “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

Maybe the Molly Pitcher of the Extreme Right had a notion of what she was talking about when she sought to rain on the red, white and blue FIFA soccer World Cup love-fest of the past three weeks. Coulter was acknowledging and criticizing the game’s immigrant status in this country. For her and for people like her, immigrant will always remain a pejorative, a symbol for all that they don’t like.

What Coulter missed is the real story: that the World Cup and America’s celebration of our team’s moderate success is reason to cheer rather than to be worried about our “moral decay.”

What she doesn’t understand is that in acknowledging soccer, Americans are embracing an underappreciated piece of our immigrant heritage. Thanks to satellite television and the Internet, emigrating, leaving home, doesn’t mean you can’t look back. Imagine if the legions of Italians, Irish and Polish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century had held on to their soccer game instead of abandoning it. The results in 1994, when we hosted the World Cup, and the results of the past week might have been more satisfying.

The performance of the United States in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil over the last few weeks has caught the nation’s attention. Our soccer team tells us much more about ourselves than we can admit — our social and military history, our myths about who we are and want to be.

The makeup of the U.S team — a German coach and three sons of United States servicemen and German women, is a legacy of the Second World War and the Cold War. For American sports fans, quality German-American players are the ultimate peace dividend.

But the most enduring images, the most cheerful legacy of the World Cup, are the hordes of nail-biting soccer fans gathered at Grant Park in Chicago, downtown Washington, and other venues across the country. Despite the nativist negativity from Coulter and her ilk, soccer provided rare moments of collective cheer, brief interludes of national unity, amidst this season of social acrimony and political divisiveness. No, our team didn’t win, (neither did host country, Brazil) but sometimes victory is measured simply by how far you’ve come — in a word, progress.

 Andrew J. Skerritt is author of “Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South.” He lives in Tallahassee. Follow him on Twitter @andrewjskerritt.