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The Cultural Differences Between Soccer in the UK and USA

By John Nicholson

As unfashionable as it might be in these days of knee-jerk European anti-Americanism, the States are very dear to my heart. For me, as a country it still embodies much of what is desirable and noble about the human adventure, and no I don’t mean the ability to eat 10,000 calories a day and survive.

There is a sense of freedom in America that I have never felt anywhere else, whether it’s out on the western plains of Arizona and Nevada, rolling through the prairies of Nebraska or driving up Pacific Coast Highway, the sheer vast, scale of the country just blows my mind. I like feeling like a tiny atom is a humongous land, it gives you a sense of perspective of your importance, or rather your lack of importance.

And then there’s all the down and dirty blues and rock n roll played in the roadhouses and bars up and down the land that makes life worth living. There are few better experiences in life than rolling up at a motel in Nowheresville, Anywhere, paying a few bucks for a room and then strolling down to a bar for a dozen cold beers and a few hours of top notch old school r & b played by some large bearded men and then driving another 1,000 miles in the morning listening to classic rock radio. When I’ve made my fortune that’s how I’d like to spend my life.

But it’s that vastness of geography that is working against American football from developing a unified culture. In Britain, football is so an entrenched culture by virtue of history and geography. On a weekend there are thousands of games being played out to millions of people at all levels. It’s not just the 4 main English leagues, beneath those there is a massive ladder of leagues, devolving into obscure regional divisions in which teams of boilermakers and panel beaters play out 90 minutes of brutality against the miner’s welfare club 11. Football is all pervasive in Britain. It’s endemic throughout society and there is simply no escaping it. Culturally, it influences everyone, even those who don’t like football.

By contrast, while there are many thousands of passionate devotees of the game in the States, the deeply entrenched football culture just doesn’t exist. Even in the state I know best, California, where a lot of football is played, especially at youth level, the culture of football is markedly different from in the UK, not least because it has always seemed to me to be a middle-class, white collar game in the States whereas in the UK, its roots and participants are largely working class. Games lack the atmosphere of vulgarity, swearing and chanting that the British game takes for granted — though it is starting to diminish here.

And into this different football culture walks David Beckham, a man who has grown up with the culture of football in his DNA. I’d be amazed if LA Galaxy don’t put several thousand onto their attendances numbers when he’s playing, but the danger is that he becomes an attraction just for those games; an isolated, if massively popular figure. For football to really expand, the community roots of the game need to grow substantially and flourish over the coming decade before American football can ever hope to permanently increase in popularity, as DB hopes his participation can help it to do.

And that isn’t just about playing football, its about watching football at all levels discussing it every day of the week, having it dissected and analysed by the press and media 24 hours a day, 365 days a week year. Football culture is unrelenting. It’s a restless, ever changing beast that needs feeding on an hourly basis., who I have written a column for the last 6 years couldn’t exist at all, let alone get 1 million visitors a month without this all consuming football culture.

I would love for Beckham to be the first in a vanguard of major European players plying their trade in America. I’d love America to become a major world football force, and nationally, it’s already achieved so much. But I fear the sheer size of the country will mean the football will never be a deeply entrenched widespread game, even if it grows and develops in states like California, which isn’t to say that thousands of people won’t continue to love and support the game.

Maybe it doesn’t matter though. In fact, I rather like the way soccer is seen in the States as a kind of upper class sport in contrast to the jock culture of American football. And it’s also quite good to be into something which the majority of your neighbours and work colleagues know nothing about. It’s a bit like being into a band that no one has heard of, there’s a pleasure in being cultish and obscure.

Either way, when I return to California this year for an extended stay, I shall be going to the Home Depot warehouse of football nirvana to see how DB’s influence has changed stateside soccer.

John Nicholson writes each week for Football 365 and EPL Talk. You can listen to John’s wonderful stories on episode 30 and 45 of the EPL Talk Podcast, as well as purchase his excellent Footy Rocks book and order one of his unique rock’n roll T-shirts.
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  1. Marta Del Piero

    February 7, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    As a huge F1 fan what’s wrong with elistist white sports…just kiddin’… from the Italian – Irish American whom speaks Spanish!!!

    …p.s. is that the correct way to display our u.s. flag? There are rules for way it is flown directionally, vertical or horizontal, and there are two different ones you buy…most people don’t know that!!! So were Spice Boy and Posh draped properly…haha!!!???

    … I love the Gaffer’s editorial on the heartbreak of pro soccer here in South Florida…boy he hit the nail on the MLS head…still cryin’ in my beer over that one.

    ..what’s w/ these darned Gringos taking over Brits teams…maybe soccer is getting more popular in usa or maybe just money is!!!
    Marta Del Piero.

  2. Aidan

    February 2, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Rich white kids don’t play soccer in England.

  3. Anonymous

    February 2, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Here’s where’s he’s behind the curve, at least here in SoCal…with metro LA becoming majority Hispanic (very footballing cultures) the game is indeed becoming ingrained in the culture, and is both West LA middle-upper class soccer moms and East LA woking class kids. In just about every park around town you see soccer being played–never softball, etc. If, as is often the case, LA is a societal harbinger (and Latinos will be or will soon be the largest minority group in the US) this demographic shift might well result in a real soccer culture developing in the States.

  4. Adam Spangler

    January 31, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    For someone who has written about soccer for so long, I’m a little surprised by your comments about America’s ‘upper class sport’.

    You are falling into the same trap everyone else is who knows little about American soccer. Once you spend some time around our game and the people who play it, watch it, and love it, you will see there is much more to it than that.

    Sure, upper class kids play the game, but you make it seem like that is all there is. What, no rich white kids play soccer in England? Writing things like you have here only perpetuates the stereotype, when I would hope you would help to tear it down, or at least do some research.

  5. Anonymous

    January 30, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    “…having it dissected and analysed by the press and media 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.”

    I didn’t realize Brits talked about football 365 days a week! That’s dedication.

  6. Anonymous

    January 30, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    “It’s a bit like being into a band that no one has heard of, there’s a pleasure in being cultish and obscure.”

    right on

  7. Kartik

    January 30, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Excellent post! Right on the money……I certainly hope Beckham can make a difference here and also help reach out to the Hispanic community that loves soccer but seemingly rarely if ever patrons MLS unless they have a player from their home nation in the match.

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