Soccer: The Perfect Sport for Congress

Members of Congress pony up sports wagers all the time. Friendly bets on which team will win the World Series or Super Bowl.

Just last week, Reps. Chris Murphy (D-PA) and Mike Quigley (D-IL) bet on whether the Philadelphia Flyers or Chicago Blackhawks would hoist the Stanley Cup. Chicago won and Murphy had to don a Blackhawks jersey on the House floor this week.

But as the World Cup starts, don’t expect any hustling between lawmakers on the most-watched sporting event in the world.

In fact few Members of Congress are even paying attention. These guys know PAYGO, not Pele. The closest they get to “marking” is earmarking. And the movie title is “Bend it Like Beckham.” Not Bend it like Boehner.

Ole, Ole, Ole.

Some lawmakers didn’t have the foggiest idea the championship was underway.

I started by asking Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) if he had a favorite in the World Cup.

“What’s that?” he responded before I reminded him it was the soccer tournament.

“I don’t follow soccer,” he conceded. But Latta did note he’s a huge baseball fan. And in particular, the Cincinnati Reds. The Ohio Republican then rattled off from memory the players on the legendary “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s.

“They had (Johnny) Bench catching, (Tony) Perez at first, (Joe) Morgan at second…” Latta began.

Latta said he just couldn’t get into soccer. He believes many Americans feel the same.

“I have nothing against soccer. But we just like fast-paced sports. I mean one-to-nothing? I just don’t see Americans sitting there watching,” he said.

And hailing from the Buckeye State, Latta did get in a parting shot against the ‘soccer’ faithful.

“At Ohio State, that’s called ‘football,’” Latta said.

I next asked Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-IL) who she thought would win the World Cup tournament.

“The USA!,” she responded enthusiastically. “In as few games as possible.”

Never mind that the winning squad has to play seven games. And all teams play a minimum of three matches.

But Halverson had an excuse for not being up to speed on soccer.

“I’ve been so interested in the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup,” she said.

Rep. Dan Maffei (D-NY) declared emphatically that the U.S. would emerge victorious. But the Congressman then asked “Are they still in it?”

The U.S. plays its first match Saturday afternoon against England.

Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-IL) is one of the biggest University of Illinois basketball fans around. But he showed his soccer bona fides when asked which nation would emerge victorious.

“I’m rooting for the U.S. But I think Brazil will win,” Johnson said of the five-time World Cup champion.

“They’re like the Celtics and the Yankees and the Canadiens,” he said, referring to the troika of basketball, baseball and hockey dynasties. “(Soccer) is essentially a religion there.”

But like all most Members of Congress, Johnson relies on staff for guidance on big issues. Including soccer.

“My chief of staff is a big Manchester United fan,” Johnson said. “I get it by osmosis.”

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) also favored Brazil. But that’s because his wife lived in Brazil for three years and is fluent in Portuguese.

“I follow Georgia football,” Broun said. “Go Dawgs!”

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) declared he didn’t “have the slightest idea” who would win. But he noted that an “angry defender” broke his tibia while playing soccer ten years ago.

One of Andrews’ Garden State colleagues faired a little better on the soccer pitch. Rep. John Adler (D-NJ) waxed romantically about how he scored the winning goal for West Deptford High School in a match with rival Haddonfield High School in 1976.

Adler thought the U.S. could win the whole tournament. And indicated that American teams sometimes pull upsets.

“Not since the U.S. beat England in 1950 has there been such a shock,” Adler said. While the Americans didn’t win the World Cup that year, they did upset a highly-touted British squad. Some soccer historians call that game “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Rep. Michael McMahon (D-NY) is rooting for the U.S.

“But Germany will win. They’re the sleeper team. Their star player got hurt,” he said.

And Germany will play without Captain Michael Ballack who’s suffering from a bum foot.

Still, there are lots of lawmakers who just aren’t engaged in the tournament.

“I like tennis,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) when asked who he was betting on.

“One of those European teams,” replied Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

Rep. Thad McCotter (R-MI) was the most diplomatic in his response.

“I think all teams participating are winners,” McCotter said with a sheepish grin.

But not all lawmakers are like McCotter. Especially Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). When I asked her who she was picking, the Congresswoman didn’t know. But she was emphatic on who she didn’t want to win.

“It hell as better not be North Korea,” Ros-Lehtinen huffed.

It’s unclear if she’s also lobbying for Greece start its game with South Korea trailing by three goals because of its debt crisis.

But Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) follows the sport more closely than others. Nunes’ family immigrated to the U.S. from the Azores, the Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. Nunes said he began to pay attention to soccer when he traveled there about a decade ago.

“When I went to visit, that’s all they watched,” said Nunes of soccer. “They watched soccer like three times a day.”

In fact, the focal points of Nunes’ Congressional office are framed jerseys from two of Portugal’s most celebrated stars: Luis Figo and Rui Costa. Figo was named the best player in the world in 2001. Costa is known as one of the top 125 players in the game today.

“I’ve had people come to my office just to get pictures taken next to these jerseys,” Nunes said.

Nunes thinks Portugal has an outside shot at winning. After all, the team features Cristiano Ronaldo, the highest-paid soccer player on the planet. But the Portuguese are in Brazil’s group.

“Portugal would be the dark-horse team this year,” Nunes said.

Nunes contends he’s not that big a fan. He also likes football and basketball. But he says when he’s in Washington, he’ll go to Summers Restaurant across the river in Arlington, VA to watch some of the games. Summers is known as one of the best soccer pubs in the country.

“The good thing at Summers is that people won’t tell you the scores (if they’re showing the game on tape delay),” the California Republican said.

To soccer devotees, Nunes appears to have a passing interest in the sport. But compared to many of his Congressional colleagues, he’s practically a hooligan.

Take Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-TN).

During the last World Cup in 2006, I asked Davis if he knew who Brandi Chastain was.

“Is that some type of a new car?” he replied with a laugh.

So I asked Davis again this year.

“My assumption is that she must be a great soccer player,” Davis said.

I then reminded Davis she scored the winning goal when the U.S. defeated China in the women’s World Cup in 1999. In celebration, Chastain peeled off her jersey and fell to her knees, revealing her sports bra.

“Somehow I missed that,” Davis said. “Is that going to happen again?”

Sports are a major part of life in Congress. Democrats and Republicans are practicing early each morning for the annual Congressional baseball game at Nationals Park. Many lawmakers play pick-up basketball games in the House gym. Congressional offices form teams and play competitive softball on the National Mall.

But soccer takes a back set on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a communist sport,” snorted one GOP aide.

“All people do is run around in circles. And then maybe you get lucky and score,” groused another.

Which could make soccer the perfect sport for Congress.