Life as a U.S. soccer fan

I’ve been reading a few books lately about being a football (or soccer as most Americans refer to it) fan, which has inspired this post:

The first book, called Bloody Confused, is written by Chuck Culpepper who was/is an American sports writer who found himself in England.  Having become disenchanted with American sports, he turned his attention to a sport he knew little about.  Rather than having the usual American sportswriter attitude towards the sport, he did what he wasn’t allowed to as a writer, which is to become a fan.

He went through the rationale for adopting a team and ended up becoming a fan of Portsmouth (also affectionately referred to as Pompey), a team not exactly known for its winning ways.  But he was getting into the sport at the end of the season (in April) and wanted to get in on some excitement.  Pompey were in a relegation battle (the Premier league in England consists of 20 teams, of which the bottom 3 are relegated to the next division at the end of the season.  The top 2 from the next league down are guaranteed a trip up and there’s a playoff for the 3rd spot between the 3rd through 6th teams).  What relegation does at the end of the season is in effect make the battle to stay up an exciting (and profitable) venture.  The crowds actually give a shit.  Imagine going to an Orioles or Pirates game in September or a Redskins game in December with something on the line.  Sure, your team still sucks, but I’ve seen teams that have avoided the drop on the last day of the season react as if they’d just become champions.

At any rate, Culpepper many times feels guilty the next season (Portsmouth did indeed avoid the drop), which was Portsmouth’s best season in something like a hundred years (it may have even been their most successful season in their history).  The reason behind his guilt is that he felt that he hadn’t suffered enough – he’d missed those 4th division years, constant losses to their arch rivals Southampton, playoff losses to be promoted, bankruptcies, etc.

In many ways I can relate to his sentiment.  I ‘became’ a Manchester United fan (which is also to say I became a fan of the sport) some time during the year 1998.  (This much I have going for me, because I didn’t so much as choose to become a fan of United, it happened because of my friend Gautam, and when I did become a fan, I wasn’t aware of United’s recent successes, let alone slightly distant failures).

I was just working at my first ‘real world’ post-college job when I met and became friends with Gautam – a British (by passport) subject, who grew up in Kuwait, is Indian by ancestry and went to college (and worked) in the U.S.  Why he was a United supporter I still have yet to know.  Being a little older than I though, he clearly remembered the United of the early ’80’s, when they were awful, and their archrival (Liverpool) won everything in sight.  Not only were United terrible ’80’s but they had been terrible all through the ’70’s.  Why would a child from Luton living in Kuwait City possibly choose such a team?  I don’t know, but his decision had ramifications on my own fanatacism as well.

At that time in the late ’90’s, watching a soccer match was not that easy.  About the only avenue you had was to catch the mystically name Champions League matches on ESPN2 or wach Fox Sports World at the wee hours of the morning to watch some team called Aston Villa play Arsenal or the like.  Gautam would record the Champions League matches on VHS and give the recording to me the next day after he’d watched.  And this is ultimately how I became a fan.

Returning to Culpepper, he may soon be able to suffer – Portsmouth currently sit dead last in the league, almost surely facing relegation and bankruptcy (many times this season the players haven’t been paid because the owners just haven’t had the funds available).

The second book which I’m still reading is called Manchester United Ruined my Wife by David Blatt.  I’m only about halfway through, but Blatt has made it painfully clear just how much suffering he has endured in nearly a 50 year tenure as a United fan. 

Who would have figured that just six years after winning the European Cup in 1968, United would be relegated?  He kind of breezed over those years in party because I’m sure reliving them were just too painful.  It’s like an Orioles fan reliving the past past 15 years.

 I’ve just read up to the point when United stopped sucking – the early 1990’s, and Blatt makes sure to mention just how easy the recent fans (those new to the team in the last 20 years) have had it.

And he’s right. 

In the time that I’ve been a fan, United have finished no lower than third place in the league, have won the league seven times, have won the Champions League twice, the FA Cup twice and the League Cup twice.  The season I became a fan, they won the historic treble – winning the league, the FA Cup and the Champions League in one season. 

Any lack of suffering on the United front, however, is made up for in untold quantities by being a supporter of the U.S. Men’s National Team.

I admit, it took me longer to get into the national team game than it did for me to get into United.  For starters, United play a very wide open, attacking style.  When I started watching the U.S. in the late ’90’s/early 2000’s, it was hard to tell what style was being played.  At times it felt like anti-soccer. 

So much changed in South Korea during the 2002 World Cup though.

From dead last to the quarterfinalists in 4 years was remarkable.  And Germany should have been ours in that quarterfinal.  And then came 2006 squashing any hope that we were improving.  Sure, we were the only country to take a point off eventual champions Italy, but the lasting image for me is the Claudio Reyna being stripped of the ball and being injured in the same play against Ghana, which led to a goal which sank our hearts (and sent us out of the tournament).

Three years later and we had every reason to be slightly hopeful.  After beating Egypt and Spain (the #1 team in the world at the time), the U.S. played admirably in losing the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa to Brazil.  The World Cup draw in December was also favorable (England, Angola and Slovenia).

And then in October everything started to go wrong:  Charlie Davies, easily this country’s best forward, was involved in a car accident that he was lucky to survive.  But the injuries he sustained mean at least a year’s absence from the game and fans wonder if he’ll ever be as fast again.  Center back Oguchi “Gooch” Onyewu then goes down just a few days later after rupturing his patellar tendon.  He’ll most likely miss out on the action this June because he won’t be fit enough to play a full 90 minutes.  And this past weekend, midfielder Clint Dempsey suffered cruciate knee ligament, which though not requiring surgery (at this time), makes him pretty doubtful for a World Cup Campaign.

The U.S. isn’t the deepest of nations when it comes to soccer, and these three players each represent the best at their respective positions.

It’s easy to feel that at times that my suffering and angst as a U.S. fan more than makes up for the ease with which it is to be a United fan.  No doubt the sport has come a long way in this country since we hosted the World Cup in 1994, but with improvement and occasionally brilliant performances come increased expectations.  At this point all I care about is getting out of the group stage in South Africa this year (beating or drawing England would be a bonus, but that may be asking way too much).

And the worst part may be watching Americans root against their home team.  We went to the U.S. vs Brazil match at Soldier Field in 2007 and it was amazing to see how many Americans were donning the yellow jerseys of Brazil.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  I’ll probably have more posts about it as the World Cup draws nearer and my heart probably gets broken yet again.  But I’ll remain hopeful, all the way to the final whistle.

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