Disclaimer: I’m talking to you, but not to you!
One of the prerogatives of being an American following soccer abroad is not being tied down to a team geographically. That isn’t to say that it can’t be a motivating factor – you can bet there are fans out there who support Liverpool because they love the Beatles, or who root for Sunderland because an obscure ancestor called northeast England home. But that is not quite the same thing as the obligation many Brits must feel to root for the home team. Imagine the contradictory impulses some Mancunians abide: whether to support United for all its historical success, City for its nouveau riche allure, or – wait for it – Bolton, because that’s where you live and your dad says so. What thankless fandom. But not so for us. We Americans have the pick of the litter, quite literally hundreds of clubs all across Europe.
So why are our choices so predictable?
There’s no greater joy than walking through the city and spotting a stranger wearing a soccer jersey. My instinct is to flag that person down, even if it means weaving through traffic like Frogger, and strike up a conversation about the scudetto race, the MLS draft, or Rooney’s decreasingly laughable hair plugs. The issue is this: it’s becoming more and more difficult to delineate the soccer fans from the fairweather followers. Despite our American prerogative, our tendency is to choose the most successful team at the time. For the last two years, that side has been Barcelona. In light of having three league titles, two Champions League trophies, a smattering of lesser accolades, and the world’s best player, Barca have saturated their fanbase in the United States. But our impulse to advocate success predates Guardiola’s team. Before Barca, Manchester United were the most pervasive side in America, thanks in large part to Fergie’s domestic dominance. And before United, Galacticos-era Madrid had our interests captivated with its Spanish monopoly and cast of superstars.
Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying good football. On the contrary, we’re talking about a sport in which success tends to entail attractive play, which is perfectly natural for fans to revel in. But such unilateral fandom, such flavor-of the-weekness, comes at a price. We lose sight of the game as a whole.
The tendency to be a fairweather soccer fan necessarily limits one’s experience of a truly global game. When we admire Barcelona’s style of play each week – highlighting their goals on SportsCenter’s Top 10, watching and rewatching Messi compilations on YouTube, updating our Facebook statuses to reiterate tired superlatives – we lose sight of everything else soccer has to offer. It becomes less of a sport and more of a biography – fascinating, perhaps, but not challenging, and losing sight of broader implications. When our purview becomes limited in this way, our fandom becomes habitual, and that is a very dangerous notion. But even more dangerous is the thought that it might become easy.
What do I mean by easy? I grew up in a state (Tennessee) that in my youth boasted anywhere from zero to one top professional teams (depending on the year). So I rooted for the closest city with a discernable sports culture: Atlanta. This is a city, mind you, that manages to produce, simultaneously, the most successful and egregiously ineffectual sides in American sports history. Case in point – a few short years ago, the Braves were riding an unmatched 13-year divisional title streak, while the Falcons had yet to post back-to-back winning seasons since their franchise began in 1966. A frenetic city, to say the least. Small wonder no one was terribly shocked when that same Falcons side lost 24-2 in their playoff opener a week ago. But I haven’t abandoned hope, even though my gut tells me they won’t get better before they get worse. I ‘ll rise up with Samuel L. next season, whatever may come.
This is a sentiment many NFL fans share with me. Detroit and Houston fans are no doubt proud of their teams this year, despite postseason disappointment. The Broncos faithful, too, are still reveling in the mysterious yet awe-inspiring dynamism of God’s favorite son Tim Tebow, even though he made a mess of their Super Bowl aspirations. Championships are rarely in the picture; playoff bids are only a shade more realistic. The offseason is not often spent wondering about the big signing but whether the veteran will sign an extension. And when the blowout happens (as it inevitably does) the agony of defeat settles in. No, for us (and for you, if you’ve ever stuck with a team through the worst of it) fandom has never been easy. Nor should it be. Because when success becomes habitual, we are no longer obliged to acknowledge the possibility of failure, and the whimsicality of sport disappears.
Incidentally, this idea came to me while watching a Barcelona game. The blaugrana were down 2-0 in the middle of the second half when I realized I had no misgivings about their chances whatsoever. In other words, if someone had proposed a bet at that moment, offering even money on either side for the win, I would have picked Barcelona. And, no doubt unsurprising to you, I would’ve been right. But the issue for me was not the fact that Barcelona’s winningness is so predictable. It was the implication of that predictability. To be a fairweather fan, following Barcelona or Madrid or whomever happens to be controlling the soccer landscape, is to abandon the necessity of thought. I mean that quite literally – I often shut my mind off during a Barcelona game, because the action on the field is replaying the same way it has so many times before. Xavi, Messi, goal, goal, goal, win. Beautiful to the senses, but not the stuff of thought.
Like I said before, Barcelona are only the most recent iteration of this trend. That tide may be shifting, and with it so may jersey sales, network highlights, and fan allegiances. Messi’s legs will give out eventually. So will Guardiola’s patience. When Barcelona’s supremacy is displaced, another team will bear the crown. (I’m imagining America 2014: the famous all-white jersey pervades our country with Neymar’s number 11 ironed on backs everywhere). But it won’t be any different than it is now; one dynasty begets another. The challenge for us inquisitive Americans is to admire such dominant and attractive football, but only from a safe distance. When it comes to soccer abroad, it’s all too simple to play the part of the fairweather fan – but that doesn’t make it defensible.
Let me offer an off-color analogy. If you’ve ever heard of a book called The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, you probably know it’s about the meatpacking industry at the turn of the twentieth century. Maybe you’ve met someone who thought a lot differently about meat after reading it. I asked a friend, who read Sinclair’s novel in high school, what her impression was. “Let’s put it this way…I’m glad I read it, because now I know how sausages are made.” So here’s your question: are you content to swallow the juicy bits of entertainment that soccer offers, or are you curious to find out where it comes from?
Your assignment for the second half of the season (call it a compulsory New Years resolution served two weeks too late): Pick a league and start at the bottom – the very bottom. Watch a match for each club, working your way up the ladder, and stop when you see something you like. Now comes the hard part. Stick with them until the end of the season and then into the next one. If you’ve made it that far (and beyond!) you’ll be a better fan for it.