I recently read the EPL Talk article ‘How I Fell in Love with Everton FC.’ As I read the article, it reminded me of my own story of discovering English football – a similar experience to that of the author, yet with an entirely different result.
I grew up playing the game in Texas (my claim to fame being that I was in the same league as Clint Dempsey), where youth soccer is very popular but American football reigns king. And while I had a passion for playing the sport, I was completely unaware of professional soccer outside of my local indoor Dallas Sidekicks (featuring the great Tatu) and the poster of Jurgen Klinsmann that hung on my bedroom wall. I had heard of teams like Manchester United and Liverpool, but even 15 years ago access to Premier League football in the States was much harder to come by.
And so as my playing career fizzled after high school, I eventually lost touch with the game. I would enjoy watching the occasional World Cup match, but that was the extent of my interest for some years. Until one day in late 2008 when I was bit by the football bug once again. I call this my football re-awakening.
I wish I could pinpoint a game or a film or a player that sparked this renewed interest, but I can’t. It truly was as simple as waking up and realizing how much I missed the sport I once loved. Regardless, I emailed an old friend, and former teammate, informing him of my intentions. He suggested that the easiest way to familiarize myself with the professional game would be to select a team to follow for the remainder of the season.
And so I decided, much like the author of the aforementioned article and many other new American fans, that I would simply pick a team to call my own. This would have to be an English team, as I was most familiar with those teams and their squads, not to mention we basically spoke the same language (although I still don’t understand about 5% of what’s said during an English broadcast). From there, it would have to be one of the top three or four teams so that I would have regular access to them on American TV. So I narrowed it down to Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Hardly original I know.
After reading up on the teams, their players, their histories and their fans, it basically came down to two very random factors: I’ve been to London a couple of times, and I like the color blue. Therefore, Chelsea would henceforth be my team.
In the weeks that followed, I dove in head first. I bought a Chelsea shirt. Ordered the special television package so that I could watch every match. Studied up on the squad and pledged allegiance to the Blues. What happened next surprised even me. I genuinely fell in love with the game all over again.
Pretty soon I was waking up at 6am to watch Blackpool play Wolves. I was recording Italian games to watch late at night while my wife slept. I read books and scoured web sites to learn all that I could about the sport. And then one day on an American fan site for Chelsea, I saw a post that was too good to be true. In a pre-season friendly, Chelsea would play Mexico’s Club America at the Dallas Cowboys home stadium – not 30 minutes from my home.
And so I purchased the best seats I could find. Ordered the newest shirt (that hideous navy jersey with the light blue hoops) and counted down the days. The week of the match, Carlo Ancelotti and Michael Essien held a fan summit at a local pub where I got pictures with both and with the FA Cup. What a thrill! On match day I arrived early and waited with anticipation as the stadium filled.
After what seemed an eternity, the team emerged. Not 50 feet from me were John Terry, Frank Lampard and Peter Cech. All around me were Blues fanatics with flags waving and faces painted. And it was at that moment that I realized it was all a sham. For me at least.
Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled to be there in that moment. But really no more excited than I would have been to see United, Barcelona, or Inter Milan (as I did this past summer). I realized that day that, while I loved the sport more than I ever had before, my self-professed love affair with Chelsea rang hollow. In fact, if I was being honest, there were really things I didn’t like about them.
The point is, you can’t become a fanatical apologist for a team overnight. You can’t manufacture passion for a team based on an arbitrarily made decision. And while I encourage new soccer converts to follow the same path I did and select one team to start with, that path has created a culture of fake soccer fans in America. That’s not to say all American fans are frauds, but rather to suggest that you really can’t become an honest fan of anything overnight – or in nine months as the Everton fan claimed in his piece.
Part of the draw to the English game is the atmosphere that shines through even on the television screen. American soccer fans see passionate supporters singing songs and waving flags and feel an unspoken pressure to imitate. But what many don’t want to realize is that the fans in those sections of the stands didn’t just decide one day to support Arsenal. They didn’t use flash cards to memorize the songs. It’s who they are. It’s where they’re from. It’s part of them. It’s natural.
And so I’ve decided to accept my soccer reality, which is that I can love the sport without loving a team. There will always be a special place in my heart for Chelsea, as they helped rekindle my passion for the game. But why can’t I also enjoy rooting for Tottenham on their Champions League run? Why can’t I also pull for Fulham or Wolves or Blackpool or (dare I say it) United on a given Saturday? It may be heresy in England, but I’m not in England. This is Texas!
Some people will say that I’m not a real fan. And maybe I’m not. But I can assure you that I love the game as much as anyone. I watch multiple games each week. I’ve read a dozen books on the sport. I watched every 2010 World Cup match (yes, even Algeria-Slovenia). But no, I don’t truly love a team. Should I fake it? Should I memorize the songs and offer loud, insincere support? Isn’t that worse?
American soccer fans need to embrace this bi-partisanship. It’s actually quite freeing to be able to objectively enjoy a sport without blue or red or tangerine colored glasses. It’s nice not losing sleep after your team crashes out of a tournament or missing a penalty to win.
I do hope that one day I’ll bleed blue. Or red. Or whatever color finds me. I hope that I’ll experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows that come with being a die hard fan. But in the meantime, why not enjoy riding the even plane of objectivity? It’s ok not to care once in a while. In fact, what could be more American than that?