Many a bum show has been saved by the flag.
– George M. Cohan
It’s a white-hot, primal fire that burns at the heart of all sports fans. It’s no secret to any serious sporting aficionado that, in the modern world, team allegiances are akin to a modern tribal identification. We slip on our tribe’s skins, paint our faces with the tribe’s colors, and go into battle. Sometimes the foe is a familiar rival. Sometimes the foe is an untested unknown. Alas, whatever the outcome, we become an undeniable part of the conflict – singing battle anthems and chanting pledges of our undying allegiance to our tribes. In American football and soccer, some call these impassioned, emboldened individuals the twelfth man. They drive their fellow warriors on across the torn battlefield as the driving rain pounds down on their paint-covered faces.
As an American soccer fan, I often find myself caught between two divided worlds. I often see this divide play out at one of my local soccer bars in New York City.
At one end of the sports bar is the rabid domestic soccer fan. These are the fans who follow, advocate, and defend the merits of the often (and quite unfairly) maligned Major League Soccer. They are a knowledgeable crew with near encyclopedic recall of team rosters, match facts and historic anecdotes. Their immense insight has been fostered in a world where they are pariahs. They are domestic soccer fans, forever “doomed” to embrace a young, newly tested league that will always be younger than the rest of the world’s more mature administrations.
At the other end of the sports bar is the European fanatic. Some are ex-patriots desperately connecting to the hometown club of their youth – a club they have rarely seen live since they left long ago to find greener pastures here in the States. Some are Americans who wish they were ex-patriots, cheering on foreign clubs with a ferocity that betrays their less-that-romantic origins (Cincinnati, Omaha, Abilene etc.) as they wave their colorful scarves in the air.
The value that binds these two often disparate groups together is an intense desire to plug into their chosen colony. Ultimately, we garner strength from the tribe. If our tribe performs well, we are connected to something successful. If our tribe is defeated, we are humbled and dejected.
We are the twelfth man. We cheer our team on to victory. We console them in defeat. No matter where we were born or where we grew up, we cheer on the tribes that we have chosen. We’ve chosen these skins. We’ve chosen these colors.
Then the bartender switches on the U.S. National Team match.
I watch members of each group begin to shuffle to the middle of the bar where the television screening the U.S. is positioned. American fans of Liverpool and American fans of Red Bull New York begin discussing the merits of Michael Bradley for AS Roma; or whether or not Clint Dempsey is performing effectively enough at Tottenham Hotspur. The English ex-patriots begin chiming in, bemoaning the latest exploits of the Three Lions (quite a bitter bunch, the English when it comes to their national team) and singing the praises of Landon Donovan. They cheer on the U.S. – the squad that represents their now adopted home. The whole bar is watching one game, cheering on one side.
For 90 minutes, we’ve all become one tribe.
For me, that has always been the beauty of international soccer. We take something like soccer – such an incredibly important unimportant thing – and utilize it to stage an international conflict where nobody dies. The game gets a brief respite from things that bedevil the professional game – transfer fees and salary disputes – and gets back to what the game has been since England took on Scotland in 1872 – a playful combat between national tribes.
As I watched the spirited contest between greatly favored Zambia and marginally handicapped Ethiopia, I couldn’t help but fall back in love with the international game. Ethiopian fans brought a thrilling vibration to the whole affair that you just don’t feel in the club game. Because it’s about so much more than the soccer. It’s about so much more than rosters and tactics and game management. It’s about willing your tribe – the tribe you were born into – on to victory.
We could argue that the quality of the club game is unmatched. How could it not be? A roster is selected from the best of the best. If a team can afford the best starting XI, then so be it. If a club can afford the best manager and the best training team in the land, so be it.
An international team has to contend with the players that were born into their tribe. Or, they have to contend with the players that adopt their tribe. Or they have to contend with players that have blood-connection to their tribe.
Is there money in the international game? Of course! Is there corruption? It’s a system run by FIFA; what else must I say? Are there back alley dealings? Naturally.
But there’s also a spirit and an undeniable force to the international game that can’t be matched by its professional counterpart. It’s the same dynamic found in the American college football scene. Is the NFL a higher level? Undeniably. However, you need only watch a few moments of any Bowl game in late December or early January to realize there is something much deeper going on. Cheering on your college side is so much more that cheering on your professional team. It’s cheering on your culture. It’s cheering on the paths you’ve chosen in life. It’s more than just the game.
As the U.S. battles its international foe in that NYC soccer bar, I feel the divide between the two soccer factions disappear. Perhaps it’s only for 90 minutes, but in those wonderfully surreal seconds you have the Eurosnob in his Liverpool jersey and the Amerisnob in his D.C. United kit cheering on the same national team.
And if all of this rhetoric seems unforgivably romantic, my only response is this: what originally got us into the game? What originally inspired us to follow this enigmatic sport where 22 men kick a bladder up and down a long field?
It was probably a simple moment where a simple game gave us a thrilling moment. And this thrilling moment made us feel better about the world around us – this difficult, conflicted, violent, brutal world.
If you haven’t caught any of the ongoing African Cup of Nations, ESPN3.com is streaming games live. The second game of the group stage starts today. Give it a watch. The football is open and fierce. Yesterday’s game between Algeria and Tunisia provided one of the best goals I’ve seen in ages. While the crowds have not been massive, the quality of atmosphere has been tremendous.
And it’s a good reminder why I fell in love with the game. A team playing for the flag. Not the government or the regime or any agenda, but the ideals of the flag.
The ideals of the tribe.
If that’s enough to get a New York Red Bulls fan and DC United fan to drink together in harmony at a soccer bar, I’ll take it.