This Sunday, the New York Times published an article arguing that a central reason why the U.S. soccer team is not a very successful one is its deep sense of honor and honesty. The argument runs as follows: If only American players were as good at flopping and as willing to dive for a penalty kick as others, they would be much more successful on the world stage, so any loss is really a moral victory.
As a preemptive defense of yet another failed U.S. attempt to win the World Cup or make it to its later stages, it is somewhat clever. As a way to circle the wagons around a different cultural icon of the liberal left now that president Obama’s agenda is failing the country both at home and abroad, it is entirely understandable. But is it true? Note that there are three parts to the argument:
1. The U.S. performs poorly at World Cups.
2. This is partially explained by a lack of successful diving.
3. This lack of diving exists and is driven by either a lack of skill or a lack of immorality.
The first part is undoubtedly true. Never has the U.S. delivered a World Cup performance even remotely similar to the glorious performances of, say, the Netherlands in 1974, 1978, 1998, and 2010.
Now to evaluate the second part, let us first assume that the U.S. team does, indeed, benefit less from “cheating” than other teams. Would that have made a difference, these past 20 years? In 1990, 1998, and 2006, the U.S. finished last in its first-round group, and an additional penalty kick or two would most likely not have taken it much farther. The United States lost by one goal during the knock-out stages of the 1994, 2002, and 2010 tournaments, and an additional goal could have made a big difference there, perhaps helping the U.S. advance to a semifinal at some point.
But do we believe that this gap in flopping exists? The man in charge of managing the U.S. team certainly does not lead one to believe that. Jurgen Klinsmann was a highly successful striker in his playing days, and was fairly well known for, you guessed it, his diving skills. When he joined Tottenham Hotspur in 1994, he even paid tribute to his well-known reputation by celebrating his first goal with a dive. Do we really believe that someone like Klinsmann cannot teach his players some of his skills?
Now some will say, as the New York Times suggested, of course he can, but the players he is working with are too honest to make use of his advice. This would be due to some sort of special character trait found only in American athletes, a preference for honorable behavior that also keeps them from using steroids in baseball and football, from exploiting EPO and human growth hormones in cycling, from spying in the NFL and from drawing offensive fouls in the NBA. The problem here, of course, is that sven of the 23 players on the U.S. squad have spent at most a couple of years in the U.S.; the entire rest of their lives were spent in Iceland, Norway or Germany. There is no reason to suspect that they would have been bestowed with a cultural aversion toward “cheating.” And good for them: Not diving when given the chance to get a penalty kick or a red card out of it is a betrayal of your fans similar to not living up to your fiduciary duty toward your shareholders by not managing government relations effectively.
So there we are. It cannot be a lack of skill or a lack of immorality that is keeping the U.S. back. Maybe their teams just aren’t that good. Should we worry about that? Probably not. Despite a population that is 20 times larger than that of the Netherlands, just a few more Americans, some 11 million, tuned in to ESPN to watch U.S.–Ghana on Monday than the number of Dutchmen who watched Holland–Spain on Friday, about 10 million. And for many of those American viewers, this game was a first, and not just the latest in a string of intensely lived encounters. If we’re trying to make people happy, perhaps the staggering skill gap between Oranje and Team USA is not a cause for concern after all.