To mark the start of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, I have updated a post I wrote four years ago, in time for 2010 World Cup, in South Africa. I wrote it for the now-defunct Pond Parleys, the brainchild of esteemed writers Toni Hargis (a British expat in the US, with an American husband) and Mike Harling (an American expat in the UK, with an English wife).
In America, of course, we call it soccer. But I am content to say “football.” If there’s one thing I learned from living in England for nearly ten years, it’s to use the English language with precision (in which case, shouldn’t it be “foot-and-head ball”?).
So, herewith, an attempt to tell the rather twisted tale of my conversion to football fandom, though part of me will always wonder: is my story more typical than one imagines? Surely, a taste for football isn’t easily acquired by those who don’t have it in their national DNA?
PART I: Why I Never Liked Football Whilst Living in England
This little tale of mine begins on a dark and stormy night in the latter years of the 20th century. I am living in football-mad England but am rapidly developing an aversion to the sport, squandering my first real opportunity to see it played at a professional level.
Chalk it up to my contrarian nature. I’m not one to throw myself into chanting, banner waving, and other tribal behaviors before I’ve had a chance to study what’s going on and make a full appraisal. And it did not take me long to find things I was less than enamored of, including:
1) The game itself—the endless running up and down the pitch with hardly any scoring. The few times I watched a football match, I inevitably got up to make a cup of tea, or dozed off, just as the one goal of the match was being made.
2) The fans—mostly male, many of them yobbos (some of whom are now chavs?). But even if we leave social class out of the equation, a good number of the UK’s football fans appeared to be hooligans, not exactly the most appealing lot—especially to a grad student like me, whose images of England had been formed from a steady diet of Jane Austen novels and Merchant-Ivory period movies. Occasionally violent male bonding rituals weren’t on the agenda. (I’m sure it didn’t help that my arrival in England coincided with football hooliganism reaching new levels of hysteria.)
3) The jingoistic tabloid coverage—which reaches its height whenever England plays Germany. I happened to be living in London in 2006, when the semifinals of the European finals, between England and Germany, took place at Wembley Stadium. What a palaver! The British mass-circulation paper The Daily Mirror ran a front-page headline “Achtung! Surrender!” over a photo of two England stars wearing World War II helmets. Years later, when England met Germany in the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, John F. Burns contributed an article to the New York Times contending that such “rib-poking” has provided catharsis for England and Germany over the years. Who am I to contradict Burns, the Times‘s London bureau chief and an expert on interpreting his native culture? Still, I couldn’t help but think of the late American historian Howard Zinn‘s warning that harmless pride can become an “arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves.” Red card!
It’s perhaps worth noting that of all the reasons I came up with not to like football, none of them included the argument that occasionally surfaces in right-wing circles in the United States, which is that football is collectivist and carries the threat of “socializing” Americans’ taste in sports.
As an expat, I had a choice: keep skating along the surface and pretend football doesn’t exist, or else try and go closer to the beating heart of my adopted culture and see what makes it tick.
So I gave football a miss and moved back to pursuing a life of cream teas, theatre performances, cricket…wait did I just say “cricket”? I must be getting batty… (hahaha)
PART II: How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup
Am I looking forward to this year’s World Cup championship games in Brazil? Why soitenly! Numbskull that I am, I’ve finally gotten with the program!!
Herewith, the second part of my most peculiar tale. As explained in Part I, I never paid much attention to the sport despite nearly a decade of exposure; on the contrary, I developed an abhorrence for it.
But four years ago all of that changed. Having settled back in the United States, I found myself powerfully drawn to the championship that took place in South Africa, and I expect it will be no different this time around, with the World Cup being hosted by Brazil. (While I’m sad that Paul the Octopus is no longer with us, I take comfort in the thought of Nelly the Elephant taking his place—her punditry is apparently on a similar level.)
I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when my conversion happened, especially as football still has all the same drawbacks I’d once noted: goals are few and far between, the fans are predominantly male, and jingoism reigns, particularly between the English and the Germans.
All I know is that it wasn’t until I was back in my own culture that I felt comfortable giving the sport a chance. Yes, I know this is ironic considering that the UK is considered to be the cradle of the game (the English have been kicking balls competitively since at least 1314), whereas we Yanks still aren’t quite there.
My top three reasons for fanning football are:
1) It’s the World Cup, stupid. Living in England, I couldn’t see the World Cup forest from the local English football club trees. But when watching the very best players in the world compete, even a hardened skeptic like me can start to appreciate why they call it The Beautiful Game. Those feet of theirs—they are using them like hands! That Messi fellow: it looks as though the ball is glued to his feet; how extraordinary! Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta: it’s incredible how they can pass the ball through the midfields! And let’s not forget Yaya Touré and the way he switches gears. Robin van Persie has a left foot to die for! And so on…
2) It’s a much-needed distraction from other kinds of world events. There’s nothing quite like a soaring soccer ball to lift the spirits, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of seeing a team, and a nation, carry off the trophy. I can still recall the thrill of watching the first European team win outside Europe, at the tournament in South Africa. Viva España!
3) It’s on a par with, or perhaps even better than, the Olympics. Ironically, even though there is nothing quite like football to arouse nationalistic urges, the World Cup is, as the name suggests, a world competition, with 32 nations competing. (Compare that to America’s World Series—now that’s a misnomer!) Repeat expats like me, who are a hybrid of nationalities, are the ideal supporters of such sporting events. I think it also helps that I don’t really have a dog in the race. Though America competes, we aren’t yet a serious contender for the cup. This leaves me free to throw my support behind almost any athlete or team that I think are the world’s best. The Olympics of course provide many such opportunities; but that’s the problem: there’s too much choice. What I love about the FIFA World Cup is that it’s a singular occasion. There can be no bigger stage, literally as well as figuratively, than the vast pitch on which this ultimate sporting drama takes
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It’s time to hear from you, dear reader. Is my conversion complete, or should I be bending the case for football still more, by stressing its potential for opening up intergalactic communication and fostering truly universal harmony? And even if you don’t share this new-found enthusiasm of mine, can you at least relate to the experience of getting to know and love a sport outside the ones you grew up playing and watching? Do tell!
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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