Soccer Punched

By Harriet Rubin March 12, 2009

Woe that a Paulson has ambushed Portland City Council. What if the sins of the father are visited on the son? Soccer entrepreneur Merritt Paulson’s father Hank engineered a much-criticized, heavy-fisted Wall Street buyout in the days when the Bush Administration was holed up immune from the world like Hitler in his bunker just before the Reich ended. If you don’t like the language of Isaiah 14.21 on fathers and sons, substitute a greener version: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Family history is destiny, as the Greeks discovered. But instead of character assessment, Portland has the O’s Anna Griffin’s embarrassing logic about why the young Paulson is to be trusted. Because, says Griffin, he has a “beautiful wife” and a “three-month-old daughter.”

Wow. That is deep sh*t.

But whatever one thinks about family trees in this green city, Andrei Markovits, who teaches political science at U Michigan, makes a good argument for Portland soccer, and it’s not just about increased beer sales. Rather, it’s about t-shirts and what they represent.
Markovits is the author of Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, published by Princeton University Press. He tells me this morning that soccer is perfect for Portland’s ambitions to join the global culture while also heightening its local identity. “What took the city so long,” he asks?

“It fits perfectly with Portland being a latte town, a super San Francisco, with a bookish, alternative culture. It fits perfectly in that soccer has precisely that Portland profile. In America it’s a sport that interests upper middle-class white suburbia, is heavily played by women and girls, and is exactly the opposite of the Big Three masculine, hegemonic sports: football, baseball and basketball. Portland is a perfect location for major league soccer.”

Up until now, however, city fathers have take a contrarian pride in politics as the people’s sport, largely because the city’s had only one major league sports team. Will a new team change that? Markovits said, “In London, which has major league soccer, nobody’s stopped talking politics.”

OK, nothing says Portland like soccer. But does the city derive a benefit that equals its investment? Markovitz believes that soccer joins a community to the global culture like nothing else.

“Soccer expands a niche culture to a global level. My new book is about this issue," Markovits says. "The book is called Global Players Local Cultures. If anything, major league sport accentuates the local. Local identities are very important and what the global world does is it allow niches to prosper. Global technologies heighten local identities. This past Tuesday, Liverpool played Madrid. There were four Spaniards on the Liverpool team and on Madrid’s team there were three Spaniards. There were more Spaniards playing for the English team than for the Spanish team, and the Spainards in England loved this expanded sense of identity. These clubs are internationalized. A viewer who develops an interest in the Portland team but lives in Columbus, Ohio, can use the internet to buy a Portland t-shirt. That Ohioan becomes a Portlander by virtue of that identification.”

So, maybe soccer is good news for Portland’s worldwide visibility. I just wish that if Sam Adams and Randy Leonard have a global vision for the city they make it clear soon. Right now every action by City Council looks merely opportunistic. In other words, the opposite of powerful.

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