Now Playing: Guided By Voices--"Teenage FBI"
I don't play sports, and haven't for a very, very long time. If one counts quiz and college bowl (and trivia) as sports, I had a bit of a flourish in high school and undergrad, as captain of the high school team and then a player in college (our success in the latter was such that the Wieder-McKay "era" was labelled the triumph of an "upstart team" online several years back by bowl veterans of one of the eight jillion other small liberal arts colleges dotted around the Virginia countryside), and then won $100 at a trivia contest at one of the other chain restaurants run by my militantly sketchy first boss in Ann Arbor. If speaking of sports where more than the thumb was required, I haven't played since I was a very poor soccer player in elementary and middle school. There's been a fair amount written in the flurry of hysterical, slightly xenophobic comment on the alleged rise of American soccer in the past few years that the game's popularity among parents from the 1970s onward was due to its nonconfrontational qualities. I really don't remember it that way; what little memories I have of "league play" in Dave Treen-era Louisiana revolved around the anticipatory mix of ten percent excitement and ninety percent shorts-soiling terror that someone might pass the ball over my way. This would be succeeded by the memory of a sea of thuggish, jeering preppy faces rearing up to shriek in rage when I did something wrong. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, soccer (now that I have access to the internet) holds an interest for me that none of the other sports can really manage.* With no other sport can I really place myself on the field mentally.
Soccer in America has had a fraught economic and cultural history, never more so than since the introduction of Major League Soccer in 1993 (to replace the defunct North American Soccer League of the 1970s and 1980s). In that time, the World Cup was held in the United States, franchises developed in various cities, and soccer became a major niche interest for people throughout the country. For my part, my general lack of concern for sports certainly didn't extend that far. I vaguely remembered my own days of "playing," but that was about it, until I started to notice through my aforementioned reading campaigns what a big part the game played in global culture. Those interested can find an excellent fictional summation of the game's history (from a long-suffering Anglo-Scot's perspective) in George Macdonald Fraser's short story "D'ye Mind Jie Dee, Fletcher?" from his collection The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988). Running across myriad references here and there started to pique my curiosity a little, as did growing awareness of the game as we all moved into the new millennium. I remember chats on the subject with a potential flame and former soccer player over a decade ago--sadly, I was never able to take advantage of her offer to "retrain me," and the subject remained on the mental backburner when I moved north and acquired access to baseball and hockey teams. I was vaguely aware of the 2002 World Cup while working at Piatto in Akron, Ohio (the soccer-literate staff Brazil fans to a man), but was unprepared for the local hoopla that would greet the next installment of the world's most popular sporting event.
The 2006 World Cup really crystallized many of my impressions of soccer culture in the States and my own problematic reactions to it, inevitably colored by my love-hate relationship with my beautiful yet icy saucepot of a town. The interest level in Ann Arbor was astonishing (although given the presence of so many international students, it really shouldn't have been), and the fascination the Cup engendered was personally unprecedented. People were talking about it on the streets and watching matches in bars, and before long I found myself checking out games on TV at Conor O'Neill's and following the fortunes of various national teams in the news (a few years before the country went digital and I declined to join). I'd been prepared a little by my enjoyment of the Torino Winter Olympics earlier that year, and the World Cup seemed like a more entertaining and boisterous version without all the fleece. Due to my contrarian bent, which has served and hindered me so well in the past, I wound up supporting France going into the final mainly because everyone else seemed to be backing Italy. My feelings, as one might imagine, were pretty mixed when it was all over, but I knew one thing: I did enjoy watching soccer.
The simplicity of the game appealed to someone who'd always found football a little overloaded, both physically and conceptually, with uniforms that looked like astronaut outfits from 70s Italian porno and accretions of arcane rules that seemed to reflect the American game's lack of a long-term tradition (nothing wrong with that, but the discrepancy was a little off-putting). Baseball suffered for me from its practical sanctification by the national elites as the "national pastime"**. I still enjoy watching football on occasion (or did back when I had TV), and baseball if there's absolutely nothing else available. Basketball's theoretically exciting, but impossible for me to follow (though I probably have more nostalgic memories of basketball than any other sport, probably down to hitting LSU games as a kid). Hockey's okay, but about on the same level as baseball (I've become a default Red Wings fan, though, both through my friend Karen who gave me the idea to move here in the first place, and my first Ann Arbor roommate George--the sane one--who breathed steam off the ice at Joe Louis Arena and is now a hockey blogger somewhere). Drawing on my childhood experience, if it can be called such, I could inhabit the space the players did in a way that simply wasn't possible with any other sport. It was more than a little exhilarating, and the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of it all really captured my interest. The way it could be so relatively laid-back (sure, or boring) much of the time and so tensely exciting when the ball came into possession of a really good player or neared a goal made for an excellent tension--other games seemed overstuffed by comparison.
The game was pretty scarce in my parts of the world for the next few years--there were never any matches carried on the big American networks, and CBC would only show one once in a blue moon due to some tangential connection with the Great Dominion. I resolved not to be caught napping when the next World Cup rolled around, as that seemed to be the only time soccer games had any widespread exposure in the States. Once again, the Winter Olympics prepared me for a global competition, as I cackled at the media-fuelled "conflict" between Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn and lost my heart to Canadian snowboarder Maelle Ricker. I was now able to watch games via ESPN online and CBC, and resisted the "Spain's gonna win" media narrative (they were basically 2010's Italy) for as long as I could (even Johan Cruyff couldn't do it, and--honorary Catalan and all--he's Dutch). The disgraceful final, though, encouraged me to throw in with one of my ancestral countries and end up happy that I did. I wondered whether I'd be so interested in the game again when the Cup was over, but this time I had a lot more options. I was happy, because I was able to enjoy the game on my own terms, and work out a few problems I had with the culture.
The comments of lucratively self-loathing hipsters on the subject may be hyperbolic, cartoonish and calculated, but they do contain a grain of truth. I made a joking comment once in an email to a friend that "Ann Arbor ruins things that should feel good, like progressive politics or an interest in food." There's more than an element of truth to it, and it applied to soccer as much as anything else. It's depressing to see fresh and original ways of thinking, eating, and living become status symbols, and it was weird to see people who would evince such contempt for machismo and thuggery in American culture and politics throw themselves headlong into machismo and thuggery in other cultures simply because the latter wasn't American. The Spain juggernaut was a case in point--it was like being a fan of the Dallas Cowboys or Manchester United a few years ago (i.e. easy). So, as I enjoyed the games, I tried to avoid becoming one of "those" soccer fans (I'd never been to Europe, for one thing), and tried to apply an impartial worldwide standard to my enjoyment of the game. Part of this involved me becoming interested in American soccer--the aforementioned Major League Soccer, games of which I began watching soon after the World Cup, with the SuperLiga competition (a contest between several intermediate-ranked teams of Major League Soccer and Mexico's Primera Division) first and foremost--the feisty Monarcas Morelia ended up on top this year. Following around the world, I'm now rooting in various degrees for Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, Chivas USA, New York Red Bulls, Cruz Azul, Corintians, Santos, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St. Mirren, Fulham, Everton, Arsenal, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City, Newcastle, Bristol Rovers, Poole Town FC, Stade Rennais, St-Etienne, FC Barcelona, CF Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Inter Milan, Palermo, Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Ajax Amsterdam, Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Birkirkara, Bursaspor, Trabzonspor, and Hapoel Tel-Aviv. That's a lot to keep track of, and I don't really follow Argentina yet.
I went with some friends from work to see a match this August in the run-down but enjoyable Pontiac Silverdome. Berlusconi's team, AC Milan, and Greek warhorses Panathinaikos were playing a friendly match organized by area Greek-American entrepreneurs who, it was rumored, had an eye towards establishing a local MLS franchise (there was one very early in the MLS' existence, the Detroit Wheels, who lasted one or two seasons in the mid-90s). The last game I'd seen live had been a girls' high school match in Baton Rouge, and it was interesting to see one played in a venue that reminded me with a pang of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU, with two of Europe's most storied and experienced soccer sides duking it out in a charismatically shabby industrial American town. In contradiction to Mr. Lander's admittedly satirical take on the game, the crowd was heavily involved in the match on a personally and culturally "authentic" level (quite a few probably second- or even first-generation Greek immigrants and a substantial number of Latinos). There were inevitable swathes of empty seats, but we were definitely in the "baby steps" of something. It was great fun to follow along with the chants of the relievingly well-behaved "ultras," and there was an unexpected sideshow when a pair of Oakland County chunkheads ran across the field towards the end of the game and were soundly thumped by security guards. The game was thankfully engrossing, with Panathinaikos seeming to be in control much of the time but AC Milan finally winning after it went into penalty kicks. So pretty true to life there, then. It was especially exciting to see Pan goalie Alexandros Tzorvas in action so soon after his terrific performance for the Greek national team during the World Cup. It was a great evening out (with a relatively sizable attendance of 30,000) and hopefully it'll encourage local interest in the game.
So that's how I ended up at Conor's this afternoon after a six-day stretch of work (much of it entertaining and hilarious, don't get me wrong) with a back-to-back evening and morning shift at the end, watching Manchester United narrowly defeat Bursaspor (which sucked--I wanted to watch Rangers vs. Valencia, but I don't think there was enough support). There's a new way to chill, even if it involves clenching at various moments. I'm a little alarmed, after last weekend, that this new interest of mine might have strange side-effects. Watching the Lions beat the Cardinals at the Red Hawk might actually get me interested in the NFL, which would be rather unnerving. Still, so long as I don't actually care about the Big Ten, I think things will be okay.
Incidentally, as this is a sports-themed post, there should be a PSA at the end, and so there will be. Fitting, too, that it should be about bullying. I went to work at 5:30 this morning, and so didn't get the call to wear purple until I got home with a few beers in me. I was never bullied as a kid in high school, at least not to my knowledge (there was a one-off incident in freshman year, but it was very much a one-off, and I was partly to blame). I was certainly never bullied for my sexuality, which, as I'm straight (to the best of my knowledge), stood to "reason" in the dominant culture. I can't imagine what it must be like to have that done to one, and the recent rash of bullying and suicides, Mr. Clementi's in particular, is an appalling comment on the way things are. I don't know in what position I might ever find myself to be supportive of a teenager going through such an ordeal, but if you are, I strongly urge you to offer help or comradeship. Thank you, and go all Detroit area sports franchises.
*I need hardly point out that the rest of the world calls it football in its various forms. It's become commonplace for ostentatious American soccer enthusiasts (I've gotten tired of typing "hipsters") of a certain type to call it such (or worse, "footie"--it reminds me of when certain Americans started saying "shite" because they'd seen it in Trainspotting), but it's hard for me not to view it as an affectation of the kind mentioned above. I tried calling it futbol, the Spanish term generally used in the Latin American circles for which the... OASEs have little time, as they aren't in Western Europe. I've decided that, since I'm an American, I'm calling it soccer. Besides, that's what Canadians call it, too.
**There's a great scene in Philip Kaufman's 1972 Western curio The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid in which an unsuspecting burgher played by MacGyver's Dana Elcar excitedly turns to a mild-mannered visitor (in reality famous robber Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson) during an 1870s baseball game and chirps "It's on its way to becoming our national sport!" Younger calmly replies "Our national sport is shooting, sir, and always will be."