After hearing from fellow Americans who follow the Premier League, I’ve been pondering the idea of coming to English football as an outsider. Here’s how my own love affair from distance got started…
Part 1: Inhaling the World Cup…
Back in 2006, my inner football junkie came alive when I discovered the World Cup. Something switched on and I followed every match I could. The love I’d had for soccer playing it as a child returned tenfold as I became a spectator. I didn’t want to miss a single pass, cross, goal or save. If I wasn’t at work, I was inhaling the games. There was a gracefulness and a flow absent from the baseball and American football games I’d long enjoyed. Every soccer moment had infinite possibilities for the match to swing one way or the other. The boundless movement was tempered by an undeniable tension. I perched myself on bar stools and took it all in. Watching the English, the Dutch, the Brazilians, the USA, I began to understand why most of the world devotes so much love, time and nerves to this beautiful sport.
Mostly, I tuned in at a New Hampshire pub: The Coat of Arms – British Pub and Restaurant. I’d been going there for years, but the sound was normally off on the TVs showing soccer and rugby. Now the sound was cranked and when England played, the place was packed. Countless Brits I didn’t even know were my neighbors materialized at the Coat. The pints flowed (sometimes at 8am) and the staff scurried through the throngs of tense supporters, taking orders for greasy breakfasts, bangers & mash, fish & chips, ploughman’s platters and (my favorite) chicken curry pitas.
I remember being blissfully lost in the atmosphere of the England-Sweden match. Not able to jump on a plane and fly to Germany, the crowd at the Coat seemed the best possible substitute. Each change of possession, each ball out to touch, each chance on goal inspired raucous noise. Owen went down and the room groaned. Crouch came on and cheering erupted from the back corner—the Liverpool contingent? They shouted their encouragement. “C’mon, Crouchie!”
Who was this guy? I thought. Skinny, lanky, tall enough to look Paul Pierce in the eyes. This was a football striker?
Crouch didn’t score that match, but he made an impression on me nonetheless. His appearance and movement made him an athletic iconoclast to pique my curiosity. I can’t say why, but I liked him immediately and wanted to know more about him. And another player who quickly became ingrained in my conscience did find the back of the net: Steven Gerrard, the late sub. Joe Cole—who’d already scored one of the insanest goals I’d seen at that point, collecting a ball with his chest 35 yards from goal and volleying it back toward the top corner where the keeper got a hand to it but couldn’t keep it out—scooped the ball from just outside the box. His cross sailed over everybody and found Gerrard unmarked. Gerrard headed it home and the room absolutely exploded. I’d never heard such noise outside a rock concert. Gerrard ran. The pub shook. The beer flowed. It was wonderful.
Then Henrik Larsson killed the mood with his injury time equalizer. But I figure that sinking feeling was just an important introduction to football supporting as anything.
After the USA didn’t make it past the group stage, I kept up with England. If only to re-live the atmosphere of the Sweden match. This led to the Portugal quarter-final. The one where Wayne Rooney stomped Ricardo Carvalho in the junk. Rooney was sent off. Nobody scored from open play. Portugal won 3-1 on penalties. My English neighbors were crushed their team was out. I was crushed my English neighbors wouldn’t fill up the pub again that summer.
I wanted to feel how they felt. The highs and the lows. But I wasn’t there yet.
I missed the semis (keeping up with them on a laptop behind the bar where I worked), and I missed the final (my friend was supposed to DVR it for us to watch later, but his system crashed), so I was forced to watch the headbutt-heard-round-the-world on YouTube.
All I knew was I wanted more football. Based on the energy of the English supporters at the Coat of Arms, I started investigating the Premier League. I’d watch as many matches as I could. I was determined to find myself a team. But how, I thought, does one do that as an outsider?
When 2006/2007 was upon me and I dove in full tilt. I wasn’t sure of my place as an American seeking English football. But, hey, I had no choice. The inner football junkie had awakened and he had demands. Who was I to deny him?