An Interview with Steven Wells
Steven Wells, scholar of punk, smasher of football’s sacred cows, and scribe for guardian.co.uk, FourFourTwo and Philadelphia Weekly, is not one to mince words when it comes to the prejudices held about football on both sides of the UK/USA divide. Much like EPL Talk, he is one of those rare sources who can both challenge the perception of American soccer culture in Britain while breaking down misconceptions of the Beautiful Game here in [North] America. It is EPL Talk’s great pleasure to present an interview with Steven Wells.
You’ve made a science out of sticking your finger in the bloody open scab of the British sporting psyche: (North) American soccer. Hatred for it seems to cross the British ideological divide, either with the anti-globalist, “authenticity”-obsessed left, or the “English-Sport-for-the-English” right. What will it take for American soccerball to gain respect from the UK (a US World Cup win, Club World Cup)? Does respect from our European overlords even matter?
I think Europeans and USAians enjoy a very strange relationship in which both sides simultaneously suffer from a superiority and an inferiority complex.
This is further complicated by the fact that the US is a massively anglophile country. Which is why I think soccer enjoys this deliciously confused cultural space at the moment. The English for the most part desperately want soccer to fail in the US, and are both appalled and dumbfounded by the fact that it’s actually doing rather well. And as I wrote in a Guardian blog I think this stems from the desperate need to both maintain a sense of cultural separation from the world’s dominant culture (and soccer serves that purpose because it is obviously better than the so-called “American” sports)—but this only works if the Americans don’t play, like, or understand soccer.
And this shades into the English need to feel culturally superior. I think if you asked most English folk in what ways England beats the US, they’d list beer, cheese, “football” (soccer), history and classically trained actors. I still think England has the edge in all five areas, but the fact that soccer has taken root here at all is generally regarded as appalling.
That said, when I blogged on this for the Guardian, there were as many readers upset by the information that the US now has fantastic beer.
I also think that we’ve only just got over the oft-proved fact that we are no longer the world’s top soccer dogs. Over the decades we’ve seen English sides spanked by sides from Brazil, Hungary, Holland, Germany, Argentina, Portugal and even France. And we’ve just about got used to that, perhaps even relishing the plucky underdog status that comes with being somewhat second rate. But if we were ever to be consistently outclassed by the Yanks, that would really hurt. That would be like being beaten by your kid brother.
As you’ve pointed out, this feeds into a more general anti-Americanism. The old left—particularly the Stalinist left—made the mistake in the 1950s of dismissing all US culture, including rock’n'roll, as “coca-colonisation” (although jazz and folk were OK, because they were authentic).
Similarly these days—despite the fact the homogenization that accompanies globalization is, by definition, a global phenomenon—the symptoms of that homegenization in sport in the rest of the world are universally derided as “Americanization”.
I’m not talking about the actual spread of so-called “American” sports—like basketball’s amazing global spread, or the rise of grassroots softball in London—but stuff like canned music at games, dancing girls, anything that makes the sporting experience more like the US sporting experience.
And while this of course isn’t entirely fair (it’s kinda like blaming the US for capitalism or fast food), I think most non-USAians regard the NFL with an absolute horror as the hideously perfect example of a sport that has been given over utterly to Mammon. Everything that could ruin soccer has already happened to gridiron. And the result is terrifying.
This clusterfuck of emotions is of course reflected in the US. There are those who oppose the round ball game because it isn’t authentically American. There are those who are attracted to it exactly because they see it as chic and sophisticated and cosmopolitan. And there seems to be a growing number of US soccer fans trying to establish a distinct US soccer identity. I think there’s been a distinct upswing in the use of the term “euro snob” in recent years. I’ve not really thought about it much, but maybe this suggests a yearning for an identity that doesn’t rely on dressing up in other people’s clothes. After all soccer isn’t foreign, it’s an international sport (and just as authentically American as the English invented sport of baseball).
This is a really, really interesting and dynamic time for US soccer fandoms. The anglophiles seem to be in negotiation with the Latinos and fans who’ve come to the US from non-European soccer cultures. I already think some of the hard-core supporters groups in the MLS are on the verge of creating something unique and wonderful, if they’re not already. One thinks of the DIY hipster fans in Portland (yeah I know they’re not MLS) or the anglos attracted to the South American style fans groups in DC and New York. And then there’s the Chivas hard core, doing the Mexican thing. And the plethora of groups in Toronto. It’s a sport sociologist’s wet dream.
Does the respect of the rest of the world matter? Only if you let it. I think the rest of the soccer world sees Americans playing soccer the same way they regard Japanese rock music. It’s not that they’re any good at it; it’s the fact that they’re doing it at all that’s amazing. (Actually Japan is crampacked with fucking awesome rock bands, which might be analogous with the underestimation of US soccer, or it might mean I’ve just blown my own argument out of the water. KABOOM!)
Back in the summer of 2007 you wrote, “Even if Bex bombs. Even if the MLS collapses, American soccer isn’t going away.” So with news that Bex may have in fact bombed all over the LA Galaxy by flashing signals he might stay with AC Milan, which would be a fairly major blow to the MLS marketing machine, should North America give up courting high-maintenance European free-kick takers for good and focus on building a more homegrown product?
Would the collapse of the music industry mean the end of music? The history of soccer is the US isn’t just the history of the professional game. There’s also the (in many respects way more interesting) history of the grassroots game. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but even if pro-soccer in the US once again shits the bed (and let’s not forget that last year saw both the collapse of NFL Europe and the AFL indoor football league) I don’t really think that would impact grassroots soccer.
Just as soccer boosters tended to massively overestimate just how much the establishment of the WUSA and the arrival of Beckham would “grow” soccer in the US, I think we also tend to worry a little too much about our failures and setbacks.
I think grassroots soccer survives and continues to flourish in the US for a whole host of reasons, but perhaps also because it fills a previously empty evolutionary niche.
In much of the rest of the world, you’ll find soccer balls in every work space (I’ve never been on a British rock band tour bus without one, for instance.) First chance you get, you set up goalposts, in the parking lot maybe, and you kick off.
The nearest US equivalent is basketball. But basketball without the hoops is futile. In soccer almost anything can be used as a goalpost, hell, you don’t even need a ball.
I see kids playing pick-up gridiron in parks and it seems to be spectacularly futile and unsatisfactory waste of time, with most of the players stood around doing nowt.
And there’s the American oddity of kickball. I passed a school playground recently and I thought: Oh my god, they’re playing soccer.
Then I thought: No they’re not, they’re playing kickball.
This I found extremely odd. I’d even go as far as to say that the day that soccer really succeeds in the US isn’t when the US wins the world cup, it’s when it becomes the default sport in the nation’s playgrounds. Which—in Darwinian terms—it really should, being far better suited to that arena (and way more fun as well as being better exercise) than all the alternatives. Way to go yet though…
You’ve written lot on the weird line-dance between soccer and politics in the US, either on the virulent hatred of the sport by the rural-right or its perception as the preferred politically-correct sport of the urban-left. Is the outlook for soccer in America bright with the election of Barack Obama? Is America’s embrace of the sport, as many are commenting about gay rights, a mere demographic inevitability? Or is the link between politics and sport in America a romantic fantasy and we should focus more on getting the Premier League on ESPN 1 to boost interest?
I think the rise of soccer in the US has been mirrored by the demise of the anti-soccer movement. There was a delicious moment in the first four years of the W regime where a whole slew of neo-cons came out and attacked soccer as anti-American. Not only was this absurd and hilarious, it also fed the fantasies of us lefty-liberal soccer snobs who love to caricature all soccer loathers as right-wing idiots. They’re not, of course, for the most part they’re just idiots. Then again, most idiots tend to be right wing.
Yes it’s a romantic fantasy. But it’s a fun romantic fantasy. I think there’s an interesting parallel between the republicans frantically hammering the race button in the election, and sports bores trying to bet a cheap laugh by knocking soccer. It didn’t work for the GOP because, the US electorate has moved on. Similarly quips about soccer being alien and odd and un-American are unlikely to elicit much response from a crowd who watch, coach or play soccer. Or knows people who do.
Sarah Vowell did a piece on NPR’s This American Life recently. She was riffing on how odd and geeky the kinds in her high school band were. “They even played soccer!” she quipped. But instead of the expected laughter there was just the awkward silence that inevitably follows a gag that’s well past its sell-by date.
Is soccer still the last enclave of white, suburban exclusivity, something you’ve alluded to in the past? Are we any closer to the future of the American game, which is, as you said of the Anderton Monarchs, “black, female and from the inner-city”?
The inner city needs soccer. Soccer needs the inner city. Hell, the inner city needs organised sports (which have been strangled almost to death in recent years). And cheap, easy-to-learn, can-be-played-anywhere soccer fits the bill perfectly. (I could quote you numerous examples of working class African American kids who, once introduced to the game, chose it over all other sports, totally debunking the oft-heard notion that black kids just don’t like soccer)
And yet the grassroots game remains resolutely suburban and distinctly middle class. I think the US game is going to get a lot less white (at the top level it obviously already is). But I’m not optimistic about how soon that’s going to happen.
In essence I actually think it’s a class thing.
What would recommend for a blogger who seems only able to elicit anonymous hatred from his readers? Catharsis?
In the olden times very few people actually commented on an article. And those that did had to sit down, write out a letter and post it. In these amazing modern times of super-lite boots and balls that are actually round, that barrier has been removed, reaction is immediate. The thing that amazes me most if how many people—on both sides of the Atlantic—seem unable to read anything more nuanced than My Pet Goat. It’s a British conceit that Americans don’t understand irony. The response to many blogs seems to suggest that this isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon. But fuck it; complaining about shit readers is like complaining about shit weather. Fun but a total waste of time.