It's too bad we don't have have anything that unites us like World Cup soccer

The story of soccer fans’ direct impact was hard to believe, so improbable you almost wished it was true. Here in a country increasingly defined by our differences, with no single sport that draws us together, it may have triggered a shiver of envy too.

Scientists at the Institute of Geologic and Atmospheric Investigations in Mexico detected a small earthquake after that country’s national team (nickname “El Tri”) scored a goal in a 1-0 upset of Germany at this summer’s World Cup in Russia. The climactic moment ultimately doomed the Germans, the defending champions. It also stirred a pair of sensors halfway around the world in Mexico City, where the institute reported a quake was sparked in “an artificial manner,” registering the impacts of tens of thousands of fans jumping for joy.

Plenty of reliable sources quickly leapt to debunk the earthquake claim, among them the fact-checking website “Headlines linking seismic activity to sporting events, in general, are overblown because they necessarily require the definition of ‘earthquake’ to be extremely broad and — also by necessity — rely on measurements taken directly near the event,” the site explained. further noted similar seismic activity was recorded in the U.S. near CenturyLink Field in Seattle during a 2011 Seahawks game and at other American sporting events. Scientific Reports, an online journal, called these “footquakes.”

But scientific explanations almost miss the point. The significance of the minor seismic disturbance in Mexico’s capital was less physical than symbolic. The story was not so much what Mexican soccer fans caused, if they did. Rather, their passion reflected a sports interest that unified their country, something we lack in the United States. “That’s such an interesting point,” says Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State. “There’s nothing like that in America.”

You’d be hard-pressed to name a sport or sporting event that serves to reliably rally fans in the United States. A particular winner on the international stage might catch our fancy, such as the underdog U.S. men’s ice hockey team that shocked the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics or the 1999 American squad that won the Women’s World Cup. But those were more the flavor of the moment than a staple of our sports diet.

Perhaps the closest a sporting event came to consistently gripping America’s consciousness was decades ago when baseball, with its multigame World Series and then-intimate familiarity, was truly our national pastime.

Sure, we love football (American version), annually joining viewers worldwide to tune in the Super Bowl. Yet even the most-watched edition, in 2015 matching New England and Seattle, attracted 47.5 percent of the U.S. TV audience. When Britain’s national team (“The Three Lions”) defeated Egypt in this year’s World Cup, nearly 83 percent of the country’s viewers watched.

Early in the ’18 World Cup, as critics at home and abroad knocked the lackluster performance of its national team (“La Albiceleste,” the white and sky blue), the Argentine Football Association tweeted: “23 represent us but 40 million are behind us. We are not a team. We are a country.” No one in the U.S., not even the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, haughtily self-described as “America’s Team,” can make a comparable claim with a straight face.

This is not to minimize Americans’ consuming preoccupation with sports. Mostly our focus is diffuse; we root for individual athletes, teams and leagues representing cities, regions and schools. We are a country of Wolfpack, Pirate and Tye-Die Nations. The notion we are a single country with common aspirations was solidified by Union victory in the War Between the States in the 1860s, but our sporting life, as increasingly our political life, is fragmented.

“It’s not like our social problems would be solved if we had something like (a fervor for a national team),” Greene says. “But definitely it’s fair to say that it does pull a country together. It gives a sense of a common purpose, a common destiny. We don’t have anything doing that for us right now. It sure would be nice.”

Overarching love of a single sport guarantees nothing, as our southern neighbors, their country rife with violence and scandal, will attest. But it helps.

“We are so polarized and against each other these days, with the elections and everything else going on, that this brings us back together and makes us feel like things are possible,” a taxi driver in Mexico City told the New York Times after the victory against Germany.

Whether success by a U.S. men’s national soccer team would have the same hope-inducing effect is unclear, particularly since Americans failed even to qualify for the current, 32-entrant World Cup, which concludes on July 15. That means at best it will be eight years between U.S. appearances. Further undermining the sport’s American appeal, some media members proudly and persistently deride soccer, a delightfully free-flowing game, for its low scoring, supposed lack of action, and, truth be told, foreign tinge.

“I think, had the U.S. made the World Cup this year, we would see similar (celebratory) images here in the United States, of our team hopefully having victories and people going nuts,” says Paul Cuadros, a UNC journalism professor.

Cuadros wrote A Home on the Field, a 2009 book that intertwined the tale of a championship youth soccer team with the difficulties of assimilation for Latino immigrants in Siler City and beyond. He still coaches “Los Jets” at Jordan-Matthews High School. Cuadros regards soccer as an effective vehicle for bringing people together. As anecdotal evidence, he cites the Pittsboro pickup game he’s participated in on Sunday afternoons for 20 years.

“It is filled with anybody from everywhere,” Cuadros says, listing participants from five countries, all ages and sexes. “That’s the great thing about this sport, is that all it takes is a ball and an open space to be able to play the game. That’s really the unifying factor.”

Maybe what devotees consider soccer’s intrinsic charms are what lure compatriots to cheer together during the quadrennial FIFA World Cup, to jump for joy rather than for each other’s throats. Or maybe people around the world simply enjoy sharing an experience that’s reliably exhilarating, minimally political, and bigger than themselves.

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