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An Interview with Steven Wells

steven wells 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.

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15 Responses to An Interview with Steven Wells

  1. Hank says:

    Great interview!

  2. jbdavis1 says:

    Fantastic stuff.

  3. John says:

    Soccer sure does bring out the best in Americans, check out the soccer page on Stuff White People Like (http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/03/03/80-t

    Americans hate soccer with a passion. We will always insult it no matter what. We will always question the masculinity of the millions who play it and the billions who watch it, nothing will change that. We are superior because we are American, our sports are superior, foreign sports are inferior.

    This is the mindset that no matter what you soccer fags will never change. America’s culture and sports dominate the world. Soccer is inferior, for weak people of lesser physical and mental stature to Americans. Soccer sucks

    Soccer is the most effemanate, unmanly/unamerican, pansy foreigner thing ever as the great patriot Frank Hill said “Soccer was invented by European ladies to keep them busy while their husbands did the cooking.” No real man (ie. American white non-hispanic male) would ever dream of even thinking of soccer without telling others how much soccer sucks and how its a pansy sport played only in europe by sissy french and that its inherently more boring than real sports like baseball, football and nascar.

  4. RF says:

    Great interview. But Wells has one thing wrong – school yard games of American football are very active. No one bothers much with blocking, or with a running game. With most everyone running out for or covering the pass, it's every bit as active as football.

  5. Sensible Non Racist Americans says:

    youre a fucking cunt john. get the fuck out of here. douche bag.

  6. nick Bohnenkamp says:

    good article. as an american, i understand exactly what he is talking about when mentioning the idiots that get cheap laughs by bashing soccer. i have had many debates with posters like john who just dont get it. as much as i want to argue everyone of his points, i will choose to ignore it.

  7. The Gaffer says:

    Many years ago I used to worry about the ignorant Americans and their distaste for soccer. During those times, they controlled the media and newspapers, so the soccer fans were the minority.

    With how prevalent the Internet is and the abundance of satellite TV channels showing soccer games, I can afford to ignore the soccer haters. They're no longer in my way, and are laughable.

    Cheers,
    The Gaffer

  8. originally from Ireland…been living in the states (kentucky) for nearly 20 years…came over on a soccer scholarship, played in college, coached in college, coached high school and club and now am a technical director at a large club in Kentucky…and i can tell you that there are a few major problems with the game here that make it nearly impossible for it to grow to a scale that most of us want it to get to and were discussed in this very good article
    1. Too few teams in a geographic area…this applies to most cities in the US (i am sure that there are a few exceptions but I have not seen it in the Midwest Region we are part of)…back in Dublin I played U10 through U18 in the Dublin District Schoolboys leagues and each age group had a division of 14 or more teams and those divisions went from Div A to Div E or even F….so you had 14+ teams times 6 or seven different divisions in each age group!! All within easy driving distance…
    2. At EVERY level in youth soccer in the US the kids play too many games in a short timeframe
    CLUB TEAMS play their seasons in our area March- May and will play between 25-30 games usually and play at LEAST 3 weekend games (if in a tournament that number can go to 5 games) they normally play at 8-10am….then again between 2-4pm
    Then they will play another game on Sunday at 10am and possibly at 3pm
    Now you can Imagine what kind of product these players are able to put on the table by the time they are playing their 4th (80 minute) game in 48 hours!!
    Injuries and burnout (especially with female players) are rife in the club game by the time these kids reach 13/14 years of age (high school playing days)
    HIGH SCHOOL teams play August-October and usually spend mid July -early August in Preseason which usually means running and fitness work…then proceed to play 20 regular season games in a 9 week window…then up to 8 more in a three week playoff schedule…
    All the while Practicing pretty much every day after school from Aug-October…(the better players then will link up with their Club teams who have a winter season which would comprise of a couple of tournaments in Florida or any warmer confines in the South USA. from NOV-DEC
    The general level of coaching in the High Schools and the general level of play is quite poor although there are exceptions to that in each major city….High School soccer is not for the purist fan of the game…
    But lets take a step back here…the AVERAGE american soccer player has now just completed his/her club season and high school season from March-October with one month (mid June to mid July) off and has played a total average of between 45 and 60 games in 7 months!
    NOW they will go from November to March and have little or NO games! They will play indoor and blast the ball off a wall until its time for the season to start up again.
    When they get to College its the same…Seasons crammed into Aug-October and then they are NOT ALLOWED by the NCAA to play again until a short window of friendlies in the spring March/April and then nothing but fitness workouts before they come back in for preseason in July!!
    ON TOP of all this…american soccer players in general
    1. Don't Watch soccer on tv
    2. Don't read about it in any local newspapers
    3. Don't Hear about it on the news
    4. Don't PLAY in their neighbourhoods
    5. Don't have any heroes in the sport
    6. Don't play soccer by themselves in the backyard

    But they DO…
    1. Bounce a soccerball like a basketball when standing on a floor
    2. Watch College American Football and College Basketball
    3. Play pickup basketball/throwball games a lot in the summer
    4. Get their heroes from number 2 above
    5. Read all about these sports and hear all about these sports every day
    6 WILL throw a basketball at a net 12 feet above them for 45 mins to pass the time
    but will not dribble or kick a ball at a goal 12 feet away from them for 45 mins

    There are a lot of great things about US soccer and it DOES continue to grow…there are some amazing players at the youth level that I believe are as good if not better than european players their age and level….BUT….what I have outlined above are ,I BELIEVE, some of the major reasons why American kids do not have the same PASSION for the game that will turn them into PROFESSIONALS of the SPORT…You can have all the talent you want…but if you dont have the PASSION then you will not make it in ANY PROFESSION
    The odds are stacked against them BUT as they grow up and raise families THEY will put soccer in the spotlight and THEIR kids will find ways to be passionate about the sport
    My son is 10 next month…and because I have no interest in american sports he only watches football….he checks BBC Sport/101 Goals/EPL talk every day for football news
    he watches and DVRs FSC and Setanta games from England Italy and Argentina
    He supports Man Utd (I went thru the 70/80's when we were crap so he doesnt know how lucky he is) Inter milan and Boca Jnrs…He idolizes Ronaldo, Messi, Ibrahimovic, Sir Alex, Jose and Georgie Best. He is a fan of the game because thats what his dad is…we don't slag on American sports, we just have no interest in them….but we love football and we live in big basketball country…but we have to work hard to find our football…I look forward to the day when it is a lot easier to find….but its a hell of a lot better than it was in 1990 when I arrived here.
    Football in the US will grow, but I see it growing slowly and can see the USA becoming a stronger nation at this game by 2018 World Cup…it is going to take 2 more World Cup rotations to make up the gaps they have right now with the world powers at the game.

    • wanderer says:

      Good comment Dave, lots of good points. I’m half Scottish half American myself, but I grew up abroad playing in leagues with Brazilians, Argentines, Turks, Italians, Dutch, you name it.

      I think you’re spot on in terms of passion and exposure to the game. You even see that with some older generation national US stars like Alexi Lalas. He obviously had the talent, but listening to him talk and “analyse” the sport really reveals the difference it makes to grow up in a culture where football is the thing you hear about, read about, talk about, and play when you’re hanging out with friends every day. It’s why the US can have a decent national side, because regardless of the sport, there will always be natural sporting ability in whatever country. But it will be very hard for it to develop from grassroots in the States to a truly national past time, respected in its own right, and not simply for being “cosmopolitan, sophisticated and chic”. To be honest, I don’t know quite how (or, God forbid, if) it will ever make that transformation.

      Well done for helping the sport to grow and develop in the US though. Much respect from a lifelong Ross County F.C. fan (Scottish 1st division)!

  9. ART says:

    Steven, I can't tell you how many times I have made these exact same points to anyone who will listen. I am a long time American supporter of soccer, and I think you've been reading my mind all this time. Thank you for expressing it in such a well-written, intelligent manner.

  10. Chuck Smith says:

    A good interview… aside from the language.

    I do have a couple of questions, being your everyday average soccer hating right-wing idiot American .

    Why do so many people seem to hate Beckham and why does every European assume that all Americans hate soccer?

    I grew up loving basketball and football as most American kids do but I have always hated baseball. Suprisingly to me and appalling to many of my friends, I now will often chose to watch an EPL game over an NCAA Basketball game. American football still rules when the right teams are playing. I'm sorry.

    My kids play and I coach. We have season tickets to FC Dallas now, solely because I wanted to see Baeckham play. My 6 year old has a Beckham jersey. Both boys have ManU and Inter Milan jerseys. I am certain that I am not alone in this regard.

    Beckham's presense in MLS and my children's participation at the youth level has made a legitimate fan of the game out of me. Again, I am certain that I am not alone.

    Soccer will never rise to the level of the NFL, NBA or MLB in this country but with over 300 million people it doesn't have to in order to be successful. More people will attend/watch those leagues and more kids will spontantiously play those games in the school yard for years to come but the seeds of soccer have been planted and the roots are becoming well set. It is only a matter of time before the grass begins to green.

    I often read various opions that lament about the US game being too structured and that games are not played just for fun. Unfortunately, this is true of virtually all sports and just old fashion 'play' in general. You won't catch kids playing football or baseball in the yard or at the park the way we did as kids anymore. A 3v3 basketball game is even hard to get organized in many neighborhoods anymore. Even an old fashioned game of hide and seek or kick the can (I'm dating myself) is nearly gone. Play Station and the internet rule the day now. Our society has just become that way, for better or for worse.

    The American sporting landscape will be far different for soccer 1-2-3 generations from now than it is today for many reasons but some patient support from England and other soccer crazed nations would help expedite this transition.

  11. Stan says:

    I have been a coach and parent in the Dallas area for over 25 years. We have a great soccer community that allows players to participate year round, even in the extreme hot and cold seasons due to multiple indoor facilities. The early influence of English soccer due to the old NASL Dallas Tornadoes has been supplemented by the large influx of Hispanic people in the last 20 years. The result is a culturally diverse game that crosses ethnic, color and financial backgrounds.
    I have had one son graduate college while playing soccer in the Ivy and currently have another playing in the ACC. I cannot imagine a better area to have raised children. While it may not match the professional acadamies of Europe they touched the ball everyday, were exposed to great coaches and played on multipe teams with very diverse styles all the way from indoor hispanic leagues to playing with the US Youth National teams. My family watches European football weekly and our conversations generally cover the top European games over the NFL or NBA. Walk in any shopping mall in Dallas and you will American kids wearing an Man U, Barcelona or Chivas jersey. There should be great expectations for soccer in this country due to the continued migration of Hispanics into the US (Texas and California- two of the most populated states will be predominantly Hispanic within 20 years). That coupled with with the already strong youth programs established in most major cities will see a continued growth in popularity of the sport.
    For a moment of venting, it is almost comical to see the generally under-educated, right winged Republican right, panic seeing their world collapse with a black president, and new soccer teams both recreational and professional proliferate in their insular backwoods world such as John. My son's college soccer team plays in front of crowds that surpass the crowd of my college football division II university. Times are changing.

  12. Palmettosoccer says:

    The United States' soccer culture is vastly underestimated, perhaps because much of it flies below the radar of the media. However, in my home state of South Carolina, kids play club soccer year during fall and spring season and fill in the gaps with indoor soccer, futsal, and 3 v 3. Perhaps they are not playing in neighborhood pickup games, but when our club sponsored weekly futsal sessions, without coaches, permanent teams, or posted results during the winter break, about 50 kids signed up to play. These kids know EPL and Serie A teams, and follow their seasons. Outstanding talent is displayed regularly. Adults play regularly in organized leagues and weekly pick up games. Is there room for improvement? Sure, but by following the establishment sports media in this country, you will not get an accurate picture of U.S. soccer.

  13. John Pepple says:

    Is there a left-right split in soccer here in the U.S? I've often looked for it, but haven't really found it. Compare the bumper stickers of the cars at a soccer game with the cars at a Whole Foods store. There's no overlap. The people I see at soccer games here in the U.S. — and I started going to games in 1976 — seem very middle of the road to me. Plus, there's an entire educational movement — multiculturalism — which is leftist and is devoted to getting Americans to be more respectful of other cultures. So far, none of their efforts include getting Americans to be more respectful of soccer. If neo-cons attack soccer, then most leftists, especially the older ones, just don't care.

    There is a generational split, however. If you were born in, say, 1950, then you almost certainly are not a soccer fan, but if you were born in 1960, you might be a fan, and the chances go up for every decade after that.

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