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How the U.S. Military Shaped American Soccer

At games for the U.S. National Team, fans brag about being back-to-back World War champs. They're being less sarcastic than they realize.
(Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr)

(Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr)

In the lead-up to the World Cup, ESPN has been airing Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil, a documentary series about the American team’s prep for this summer’s tournament. The first episode began with clips of the German national team scoring goals, focusing on a particularly joyous celebration by Jurgen Klinsmann, now the U.S. National Team manager. Large swaths of the show took place in Germany. Klinsmann remarked how Germany feels like home because it is his home. A few players spoke German during interviews. John Anthony Brooks, a defender for Hertha Berlin in Germany, showed off a tattoo on one elbow of a map of Germany with a dot for his hometown. (He has a similar tattoo for Illinois, where his family lives, on his other elbow.) In short order, Germany became an awfully prevalent theme for a documentary about the U.S. Soccer team.*

Generally speaking, a player can play for a country’s national team if he or one of his biological parents was born there. Five of the 30 players on the U.S.’s preliminary World Cup roster have a German mother and American father: Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Terrence Boyd, and Julian Green. Most notably, Green, an 18-year-old Bayern Munich reserve team player, is one of the most talented American prospects since Landon Donovan. He, like the other four German-American players, are all sons of American servicemen.

ONE COULD SAY WITH only the wryest of smiles that the Soviet blockade of Berlin was the most important event in U.S. soccer history. Once the blockade began, it was clear to the United States military that the Cold War would demand permanent bases in Germany. During the Cold War, there were hundreds of installations and nine major air bases in West Germany, including the U.S. Air Forces in Europe headquarters. The population of military bases, often numbering in the tens of thousands, would dwarf those of the small surrounding towns.

Even though the American chants substitute military accomplishments for soccer ones, there’s something disturbingly apt about them: The U.S. Soccer team would be worse if these players were not eligible as a result of our foreign military bases.

In an effort to “improve their contacts with the local people,” the Air Force created soccer teams where soldiers would learn the game and compete against the local population. As reported by the DailyBoston Globe, within a year of the program’s 1954 inauguration, 50 European bases had teams, while some had multiple squads that would compete against each other and in local leagues. The Globe called the Air Force’s efforts “a scheme to popularize soccer, which soon may have its effect back home in the United States.” While this prediction was off the mark, relationships with the locals certainly would improve, whether due to soccer or not.

As of 2009, there were 227 active bases in Germany. Despite many base closures in recent years—it’s difficult to tell, based on military documents, which have actually closed or are scheduled to—there are still 40,328 United States military personnel deployed in Germany. Because the bases have existed for decades, many locals have developed an affection for them and the soldiers themselves.

For U.S. Soccer, these bases have proved fertile ground for new talent. Germany, like all of Europe, is soccer-obsessed. The German team is one of the best in the world, currently ranked second in FIFA’s World Rankings. Players who wouldn’t stand a chance to make the German roster seek out other countries for which they may be eligible that may not have Germany’s soccer pedigree. For children of U.S. military personnel, America is an obvious second choice. U.S. Soccer has been happy to recruit these Americans who have been trained elsewhere.

NATIONAL SOCCER TEAMS WITH complex identities is nothing new or particularly unique to America. Switzerland is experiencing an intense anti-immigrant fervor despite its national team featuring Turkish, Bosnian, Italian, Kosovoan, and Macedonian immigrants. Many of France’s biggest stars have at least one foreign-born parent. In England, midfielder Jack Wilshere responded to a question about Adnan Januzaj possibly joining the English team after fulfilling the five-year residency requirement, by saying, “If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English ... the only people who should play for England are English people.” Januzaj later joined the Belgian team and was named to their 30-man World Cup roster.

In some cases, families are moving into a country, raising families, and joining the culture. The German-American phenomenon is the opposite, in which America deploys its citizens elsewhere. But, in both cases, players are quick to align their identities with their national team. Vincent Kompany, son of a Congolese father but Belgian native, once said, “I am 100 percent French and 100 percent Congolese.” Terrence Boyd’s dueling elbow tattoos display a similar sentiment.

Regardless of how the players feel, there’s something inherently appropriate to the U.S. military’s influence on the American soccer roster. In a 1945 essay titled “The Sporting Spirit,” George Orwell wrote: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe—at any rate for short periods—that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”

Echoing Orwell’s sentiments, in Soccer Against the Enemy, author Simon Kuper credits Rinus Michels, a Dutch manager, with coining the phrase “Soccer is war.” At U.S. Soccer matches, I have seen more than one “Back to Back World War Champs” T-shirt (especially at a match against Germany) and heard countless chants celebrating America’s imperialistic history, such as one against Panama: “We split your country in two.” (To be fair, this isn’t an American phenomenon: English fans have been known to sing, “Two World Wars and One World Cup” and “Stand up if you won the war,” to the tune of Camptown Races.) Even though the American chants substitute military accomplishments for soccer ones, there’s something disturbingly apt about them: The U.S. Soccer team would be worse if these players were not eligible as a result of our foreign military bases.

Unfortunately for U.S. Soccer, this German-American boom may be short-lived. The military is in the process of closing many of its German bases. By 2016, only a few are expected to remain operational. Fortunately for our future World Cup hopes, there are still 13,000 troops in Italy and Spain.

*UPDATE — June 17, 2014: We originally wrote that Terrence Boyd has tattoos of Germany and Illinois on his elbows. John Anthony Brooks has those tattoos.