Tuesday, June 3, 2014

An MLS fan "over there" and the ugly English football fan

The Champions League Final is over.  Atletico were 90 seconds away from the unlikeliest Double of a lifetime.  I now understand why the Europeans overlook MLS – it’s not just the differences of time zone and perceived quality of play.  It’s that even the fanatic that is the football fan needs a break.  We follow our teams through the ups and downs of almost 50 matches: domestic cups, international tournaments, and league matches.  It’s a lot of football.  And summer gives us a break.  MLS, with its schedule designed to compete the least directly with the only sports which will ever matter in America (you know which three I’m speaking of), runs right through that break.  This March to December schedule means that MLS starts its season during potentially the most exciting part of the European season and then continues on during the “break” I spoke about above.  It then ends its season as European football is hitting its mid-season frenzy and the transfer window opens up upon which league championships can depend.

From the perspective of someone who loves MLS and has avidly followed the league for years, but has just experienced only half of a European season in situ, I  feel I can safely say that MLS will never be “big-time” until we sync up with everyone else in the world as regards our calendar.  Surely our country is vast, but we’re smart people.  We can figure it out, load up games in the South where it’s not snowing, and make it work.  Perhaps we need the training wheels of another decade that better TV coverage, awareness of a growing NASL and USLPRO presence, and simply better football will bring.  But I surely hope those training wheels come off and we can join the rest of the world.  We can thrive while ignoring the metric system.  But this is more important than weights and measures: this is football.


Last year I had the unbridled pleasure of attending my first European soccer matches.  I journaled my thoughts upon attending them, but it was my FA Cup experience of a couple weeks ago that finally led me to put pen to paper for a full reflection.

As an American fan of the beautiful game, I’ve been rather spoiled.  In particular my last two years of fandom included two cup finals that went to penalty shootouts in which my team won (having only a few years previous been a season ticket holder watching my team play in a minor league baseball stadium, there was an added sweetness to those victories).  I’ve yet to taste that necessary wormwood that all football fans should taste in their lifetime: watching your team lose in a cup final.  I confronted that possibility two weeks ago while watching the FA Cup Final in London with my friend and erstwhile podcasting co-host, David.  Hull City, vast underdogs against the mighty Arsenal, had just scored twice in less than nine minutes.  I dropped my head and thought, “we can come back from 2-0, but not 3-0.”  I said as much to David.  This start had reminded many Arsenal fans of the skinnings we had received at Anfield, Stanford Bridge, and the Etihad in the league during the season.  Those games had delivered that horrible feeling that we had been found out – and worse – that the players might believe it too. 

We weren’t at Wembley.  The only offer I had received was via Twitter the week before the match and it was for 500 pounds, well north of 700 US Dollars – and while this was Arsenal’s best chance to break its trophy drought of a decade (I’m memory-holing the League Cup loss to Birmingham) I didn’t have the funds to make that happen.  What I attended instead was a members-only screening at the Emirates.  20,000 fans sat in a stadium that routinely held 60,000 and watched 3 enormous television screens (the one David and I were centered on was the largest mobile screen available in Europe).  While David and I had arrived 2 hours before kickoff to ensure our seats, we, and the others in our row had not sat in a configuration that allowed us to avoid sitting next to three “typical” English football fans (and typical Arsenal fans as well – who are, in some ways, worse).  These clowns showed up a few minutes before kickoff and managed to get the three seats right next to me. 

There are some behaviors that occur regularly in European football that are simply unheard of in the American iteration.  We would never throw bananas on a field at black players and if someone did, he/she would find themselves escorted from the stadium, possibly arrested and prosecuted, and faced with a lifetime ban from that stadium.

We also don’t curse our own teams.  Well let me put it another way – we just don’t curse in the same widespread way that the British do.  Those who only know the British through Jane Austen and the BBC may still consider the British the very inventors of politesse, but the language of British fans when watching football is absolutely appalling.  Some Brits use a number of words in their everyday speech that would stop all conversation if used in public places in the United States.  Worse, when these Brits are football fans, they don’t just lavish these words upon players of the opposing team or on poor referee calls.  That’s – in some ways – understandable.  But they use them on their own players.  Arsenal fans, a particularly whiny and persecuted lot (with some reason – everyone in the media mugs off Arsenal on the time) use a bad pass, a missed tackle, or a surrendered goal to call down the heavens of vengeance and to let fly a stream of curses on their own players that I’m certain most British fans consider background noise but is simply shocking to the American fans of the game. 

Maybe I’m the problem.  I’m told such nasty behavior is par for the course at American football games, and in discussing the matter with various British fans I’ve been told that part of the issues is that this is “blowing off steam” after a workweek of "being repressed."  I’m not campaigning to make all sports fans the same.  I was at the French Open last week: there’s a sport where silence is demanded during gameplay and order and tradition reigns.  Football can’t be played silently.  Indeed, it is the roar and triumph of the crowd that makes European football, particularly the British variety, like nothing else.

I haven’t been blessed with children but I would never take them to any ground where they could hear such language.  I would endeavor to raise young gentlemen and ladies and just as I would steer them clear of situations, movies, and friends in which disgusting and nasty language was used, so too I would keep them away from any football pitch in which such language was used.  It was interesting to watch my first European matches at the Emirates in London and at Parc des Princes in Paris (Ironically the “rude French” don’t curse their own players and since the language and idiom is so sound-effect-heavy, the sole reproof I heard at Parc des Princes for a poor pass was a sharp intake of breath over the teeth, as you might make upon witnessing a near car-accident.  They are also more playful.  When the opposition kicks a poor corner, shouts of “c’est bon” and “excellent!” ring out.  I don’t to tell you what I would hear in England regarding the player in question’s mother, wife, sisters, etc.).

I can feel the rolling eyes of a dozen friends who have forgotten more about football than I will possibly ever know.  “They’re just words, Stephen, no big deal.”  Sure, what are words but what we use every day, and what are words but how we express ourselves, in written and oral form?  And what are words but one of the ways we define the people we are – giving the courtesy to others that we hope to receive ourselves?

Nothing could take away the feelings that surged through me as Arsenal staged one of the most epic comebacks in FA Cup history, and when my favorite player used a touch of class to gift the Gunners their first trophy in a decade, even the disgusting behavior of the drunks next to me could only slightly smudge an afternoon I would not soon forget.

Sport is a big part of my life.  But I take care to fill my life with the positive, the thoughtful, and the traditional.  Football can be all of those things so often.  It’s part of why I love it so.  But when it becomes beholden to racism, political correctness, or ugly behavior in general, the pure joy one experiences in watching the beautiful game is partially eclipsed, and for as “behind” as the American version of the game is, I hope we never “catch up” to that.

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