As the son of an Englishman, I’ve been exposed to English football my entire life. My interest peaked during World Cups — especially the 2002 tournament when my dad and I traveled to Japan to follow England around during the Group Stage. The trips to Saitama, Sapporo, and Osaka cemented my allegiance to the Three Lions, an allegiance that held firm despite being drawn alongside the United States in the 2010 World Cup.
Before we go any further, don’t question my patriotism. The jokes and slants at my rooting for England got old in a hurry. I always considered myself a spiritual dual-citizen, and the Japan trip sealed my English fandom. I will watch the United States men’s national team and root for them in any other circumstance, but fandom is determined by which team will cause the greatest excitement by winning and the greatest devastation by losing. For me, that’s England. They’ve given me too many good memories, including Germany 1-England 5 (Even Heskey scored!) and Beckham’s free kick to level Greece and send England to Japan, and too many painful losses, the loss on penalties to Argentina in 1998 and Portugal in 2006.
Despite all this, soccer remained a peripheral sport, with baseball and football in the foreground, due to my lack of a constant team to follow. My dad’s hometown team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, had spent most of my life in the second division of English Football, and thus difficult to keep up with apart from minute-by-minute text commentary. However during my last year in high school, Wolves had a wonderful season and automatically qualified for the Premier League again, in a time where Fox Soccer began showing more top flight football.
This is the first thing football gets right: promotion and relegation. Owners and managers who run their clubs the right way, no matter the size, have a chance at glory in every season. Clubs who play frugal and just try to earn a profit off fans face the dangers of losing status and losing money. Teams at the bottom half of the table can’t just tank games in hopes of a high draft pick like American teams. Imagine if the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Cleveland Browns entered the final week of the season needing a win to stay in the Major League or NFL. You don’t think the owners will invest more money if there was a chance of dropping down to semi-pro status?
I guess this point leads into a second thing football got right: no collective bargaining, especially no amateur drafts. Out of all the things I’d love to see transition to American sports, this is the least likely, because it seems the most contradictory to our sporting beliefs. In England, young soccer players play in academies that are funded by professional clubs. These academies are the lifeblood for most clubs, either adding new players every year or adding funds by selling players to other clubs. The best players get a chance to play for the best clubs or make best club level money, just like in the working world. Teams don’t care if players are 16, if they’re good enough, they can play and get paid.
This point is also the hardest to make because it would ruin college athletics, the only American sporting medium that can rival European football, because it creates a genuine bond between team and fans. My interest in football rose above casual observer when I finally got to be more than a casual observer. When my Dad and I went to England for my freshman Spring Break, Wolves were sadly playing away both weekends, but we were lucky enough to go to the Emirates Stadium to see Arsenal play West Ham United. When Denilson’s early shot beat Rob Green, the sound created by the Gunners could only compare to a Clemson touchdown. Arsenal won 2-nil and I had a new secondary team to root for when they played in Europe and domestically when they weren’t playing Wolves.
My third thing is probably the most trivial, but it’s one of the things I love the most about football: the chants sung at matches. If you aren’t fully aware of what I’m talking about, go on YouTube and type in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and listen to a crowd shot of Liverpool supporters belt out their anthem. As a Wolves fan, I hummed “We Shall Not Be Moved” for days after it was belted out at Molineux on the final day of the season. I think it’s the only thing that could be added to the atmosphere of a Death Valley Saturday: better organized chants than the chaos of the cadence count. Sadly, the only one I could think of played off the English standard “Que Sera Sera” that ends in “We’re going to Wem-ber-ley”, the site of the FA Cup Final. “Que se-ra, se-ra/What-ev-er will be, will be/We’re go-ing to Mi-am-i!/que sera, sera!”
Maybe growing up a fan of the Atlanta Braves made me a sucker for organized crowd noise. I still love listening to an AM station in Braves Country and hearing the chant of the Tomahawk Chop in the background. Maybe it’s because when all those voices blend together it shows how similar fans of a team are, all of the fans contributing to a common sound that become the voice of their team. It’s why I’m such a sucker for the Clemson Alma Mater. There’s something about singing the same song with 80,000 other people that makes you feel at home with sports.
My final thing that football gets right is that it is the perfect length of time: year round. The season starts in July and August with the ending of the transfer window and the beginning of friendlies up until the opener in mid-August. Games are every weekend with the exception of international breaks, which just means different games. League cup games start in September and run until the end of February. FA Cup starts for real around Christmas and ends in May. Champions League gets us through midweek from September ’til December then February ’til late May. The domestic season ends in May, but there are summer tournaments every other year to fill the gap until it’s time for the next season.
For the hopelessly addicted, there really is no other sport as far as volume of games and media coverage that comes close. No matter how hard ESPN and Brett Favre try, the NFL is not a year round news story. It gets old in a hurry. Football never gets old because it always seems new. Every goal is different, every game is different, every season is different. And yet, it’s familiar enough to keep us around. Every crowd reacts the same to a goal (hands in the air) and the same to a miss — hands on the back of the head).
I wish with all my heart that more people in America cared about soccer, but scenes like the Gold Cup Final only solidified my doubts in seeing that happen. The only thing that could give soccer a serious foothold would be the continued success of the US Men’s National Team. Otherwise, people will continue to dismiss soccer as a irrelevant sport. Right after the match, a user on a sports message board thanked Mexico so that “now everyone here can quit pretending to give a f**k about soccer for another few years.”. No matter how incendiary that comment is, deep down, you know people who only care about the national team switch off their soccer interest as soon as the Yanks’ performances fail to impress.
All we can hope for is that the interest level continues to rise, slowly but surely, as the younger generation is exposed to its beauty more and more and the stigma of an inferior sport fades slowly into the distance.
Until then, let’s just enjoy our little secret: the beautiful game.
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