(Photo by: Tony Manfred)
I often find it strange that a sport built from the tribal rituals of a fiercely communal curiosity called “folk football” should spend so much of its time in the modern era online. Alas, that is the world we live in. Technology has irrevocably changed the game. A recent poll suggested that over half of US sports fans would rather watch their teams play on television or streamed online than make the excursion out to catch those games live and in the living flesh. Of course, they would. The virtual sports bar that is Twitter allows us our banter. It’s pixelated and bloodless, but I imagine it suffices for some. Our HD televisions display the game in glorious color with warm and (hopefully) witty commentators who help broaden our understanding and appreciation of the game.
From a perspective of presentation, the game of futbol on television in the 21st Century is practically flawless.
And therein lies the rub. As Colin Cowherd so succinctly stated in one of his wonderfully acerbic (but, still strangely affectionate) post-World Cup rants following the US Women’s heartbreaking loss to Japan on a penalty-shootout, soccer is a flawed game.
I couldn’t agree more. We all love a wonderful, glorious, magnificent, flawed game.
Even the folk football of yore allowed its participants to move that ball throughout the town using their hands. It’s counter-intuitive at times to say the best representation of human athletic prowess is a sport that disallows the use of two of our most crucial appendages, the arms, to move a ball up and down a field. In some respects, it’s downright comedic.
Alas, there it is. It’s the sport that we love. It’s Pele’s “beautiful game.” And it’s a flawed mess of a sport.
Perhaps it’s the sheer madness of the game’s central conceit – possess a round ball and move it down the pitch using everything your body can utilize except the arms – that drives us as spectators to view it at its zenith. The brilliant, offensive muscle of the English Premiership. The flair and majesty of La Liga. The tactical savvy of Serie A. Go to any soccer bar in NYC. Audiences will watch these elite level matches with a reverence usually reserved for philharmonic concerts. I sometimes wonder if American fans are guilty of this more than any other. Those of us who have followed and enjoyed the game for years have often been a marginalized community, akin to those college kids who had to venture downtown to the city’s sole art-house cinema showing their favorite foreign director’s latest film. American soccer fans brandished their swords and shields and took on the behemoths that were the NFL, the NBA, and the MLB. They were champions of a sports that, in many ways, defined the rest of the world and was generally maligned domestically.
So, as any healthy subset of fandom will tend to do in a social vacuum, those American soccer warriors crept online and found like-minded aficionados. They discussed. They bantered. They trolled (long before it was a generally accepted convention). They cheered. They jeered. And they bitched about everything.
And, sometimes, I wonder if that’s where many of them stayed. Bitching online.
As Clint Dempsey was signed by the Seattle Sounders, the #DempseyWatch and the #DeuceWatch phenomenon on Twitter fascinated me. A social wave of speculation was happening in a virtual channel littered with soccer-hardcore fans who dissected the merits of Dempsey’s move from the much-heralded English Premiership to the all-too-often misperceived Major League Soccer. Was this move to the Sounders a failing on Dempsey’s part? Would his play for the National Team suffer? What did Jurgen Klinsmann think of the move? How did this affect the perception of American players abroad? Would this help or hinder the domestic league?
Watching this virtual, pixelated banter on my PDA, I suddenly felt like I watching the vacillation of a zeitgeist right in front of me. Ebbs, flows, and eddies. Opinions and counter-opinions in a whirlpool. Hashtags were trending as soccer fans all over the country were trying make sense of the ramifications of this bold signing.
From many of the fans (most of whom seemed partial to leagues in Europe), this one pattern seemed to consistently emerge: as Americans, we want our best and brightest playing abroad as opposed to domestically. We want our dashing American forwards to be plying their trade in England, Spain, and Italy. We don’t want them here at home.
We want our stars playing brilliantly overseas where we can only watch them on television and banter about them on twitter. We don’t want them here on our shores where we can go and watch them locally.
I am by no means saying that one feeling is right or one is wrong.
But, I was struck by the recurring sentiment in so many of the online correspondences that I read in the wake of Dempsey’s signing for the Sounders: there was this feeling that we needed an American to excel at the top of the game to justify America as a futbol nation. If elite teams took the Yanks seriously, the world would take the Yanks seriously. Thus, the world would take us as fans seriously.
And I wondered, do some of these fans need Dempsey to succeed so their soccer fandom can – at long last – be justified? As Americans, our love of soccer has validity.
Peter Parker, mild-mannered teenage goofball, at long-last becomes Spiderman.
As a soccer fan community, are we like junior class-men looking to the senior class for approval? Our knowledge of the game may be comparable with the best of soccer nations. But, do we inherently question our validity in terms of culture?
Is our culture sophisticated enough?
Many of these so-called “Euro Snobs” suffer from this – the American ones especially. I can’t imagine any of them will ever cop to it. But, there’s often a sense that they’re compensating for their self-perceived lack of culture. They can only watch the top leagues in the top countries because the Senior Class is only watching the top leagues in the top countries on television. That means negating MLS, NASL, USL Pro, college soccer etc.
The Senior Class doesn’t watch live and local soccer. And the Senior Class is sophisticated culture.
One of the biggest complaints of MLS is that they haven’t made enough financial commitments to improving the product on the field. They just made Clint Dempsey happen in Seattle. They just made the largest financial commitment the league has ever made to a player, and he’s an American star. These same fans complain that the level of play is substandard to what an ace of his caliber deserves. The league is trying to improve the level of play by bringing this type of player over in his relative prime. These same fans complain that the level of competition will harm his level of play for the National Team.
My question is this: what will satisfy these “culturally superior” fans?
Can they ever be satisfied?
I wonder if they just enjoy the battle. I wonder if they just enjoy the banter. Pixelated and bloodless.
They should leave their Twitter at home more often and go out to a game in a flesh-and-blood stadium. It was folk-football once. The town would meet up and move a ball to and fro throughout their village’s limits. They would commune. They would cajole. They would share an experience.
That’s a sophisticated culture.