Photo: Shine 2010

A Washington Post columnist is in the news after calling soccer a “socialist sport.” Adam Roy says he got it all wrong.

Writing on the American Enterprise Institute’s blog last week, Marc Thiessen said that “most Americans don’t give a hoot” about soccer, and contrasted it with “capitalist” sports like American football.

Thiessen, a former speechwriter for the Bush White House, also criticized the French team for their pregame strike, and pointed to soccer’s relatively low scores as evidence that the sport stifled competition.

I heard about Thiessen’s article on the radio today, and was immediately puzzled. My problem with Thiessen isn’t that he has obviously never watched or played soccer (one of his main objections is that players can’t use their hands), or that his post is a thinly-veiled dig at healthcare reform.

But he has it backwards: soccer isn’t a socialist sport. If anything, it’s a Republican sport: the game and its culture fit the GOP’s ideology perfectly. Here’s my reasoning:

It’s capitalist.

Soccer is nothing if not capitalist. The game is so laissez-faire that it makes our sports look borderline Marxist.

American sports leagues have all sorts of pesky salary cap regulations that dictate how much teams can pay players. No so in most soccer leagues, where teams are pretty much free to do whatever they want with their money. That’s why Cristiano Ronaldo took home $17.7 million this year, a bigger salary than that of LeBron James.

It could also be why the world’s richest sports team is a soccer club, England’s Manchester United. According to Forbes, the club’s net worth last year was $1.87 billion.

If you want firsthand evidence of soccer’s marketability, go find a busy street corner, park yourself there, and take a look at the torsos of the young people walking by. At least a few will probably be wearing jerseys from foreign soccer clubs, especially English Premier League teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool. EPL clubs make millions of dollars selling merchandise, and Americans are among those buying.

There’s no government intervention.

Small government is a classic Republican value, but it doesn’t extend to American sports. It seems that every time there’s a controversy in an American sports league, the federal government steps in. Congress has called hearings on steroids in MLB, concussions in the NFL, and pensions in the NBA.

Soccer is governed by FIFA, a private, for-profit corporation with zero tolerance for government involvement in sport. The group recently threatened to suspend France and Nigeria after their presidents announced plans to investigate the countries’ poor performances in the World Cup.

It’s nationalist.

Thiessen characterizes soccer hooligan firms as “proletarian mobs”. In reality, their politics are usually right-wing, often extremely so.

English hooligans like Chelsea’s Headhunters are notorious for their ties to far-right fringe groups like the British National Party. They’ve also been tied to the English Defence League, an organization that’s taken the same anti-Islam stance that conservative groups like the David Horowitz Freedom Center have in the US.

Soccer leagues aren’t centrally controlled.

American sports leagues operate on a franchise system, in which all teams fall under the authority of a central commissioner. New teams can’t join without this central governing body’s approval. American leagues are also closed systems, so teams remain members no matter how poorly they perform. Seems like a pretty Soviet system to me.

Soccer leagues differ in that they have an open structure: clubs are independent entities, and anyone can start one. At the end of each season, the best clubs in each division get bumped up to the next league, so the teams that perform well get rewarded. As a system, it encourages entrepreneurship and good, old-fashioned hard work, rather than artificially protecting a select few.

There are no unnecessary rules.

With the possible exception of basketball, American sports are a mess of rules. There are rules that govern when one team has to turn over the ball to the other, who can pass the ball and where they can pass it, and how players are allowed to celebrate when they score. Add in instant replay, and games can slog on like a Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Soccer can be summed up in about four rules: no hands, no body tackles, don’t go offsides, stay in bounds. There’s no unnecessary regulations, so any average Joe the Plumber can understand the game.

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