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Friday, July 9, 2010

An American Woman's Conversion to Football Fandom/Part I

NOTE: I'd like to extend a special welcome to followers of Pond Parleys, which published a version of this 2-part post on 7/11/10 (or 11/7/10). Pond Parleys explores the allegedly special relationship between the UK and USA. 

Netherlands or Spain? I'm mulling it over. But first I need to contemplate how I underwent a transmogrification from someone who paid no attention to someone who actually cares: from football skeptic to fledgling football fan.

In America, of course, we call it soccer. But I'm 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"?!).

Anyway, it's too hot on the East Coast to do much thinking, or as one East Village bar posted on its door: "It's too hot to think, so let's drink!" So, herewith, an attempt to tell the rather twisted tale of conversion to football fandom, though perhaps it's more typical than I'd imagined? Part I today, and Part II — How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup — tomorrow.

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 and make an 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. I can't tell you how many times I 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 (at least that was the term in my day, I guess they are now called chavs?) and hooligans, not exactly the most appealing lot to a young American woman.

3) The jingoistic tabloid coverage — particularly when it comes to England playing Germany. I happened to be living in London in 2006, when these archest of rivals competed in the semifinals of the European finals at Wembley Stadium. 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. Just before England met Germany in this year's World Cup, John F. Burns, the London bureau chief for the New York Times wrote an article contending that such "rib-poking" has provided catharsis for the two nations over the years. Who am I to contradict Burns? He certainly knows English culture better than I do. It's just that I keep thinking about the late historian Howard Zinn and what he said about harmless pride becoming an "arrogant nationalism dangerous to others and to ourselves." Yellow 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 has surfaced recently in right-wing circles in the United States, which is that football is collectivist and carries the threat of socializing Americans' taste in sports.

If I had to dig a little deeper into my reasons for not liking the game, I think it probably had to do with what drew me to try living in England in the first place. The moment they entered a football stadium, normally reserved English people would unleash emotions I didn't know they had, and it wasn't a pretty sight.

As an expat, I had a choice: keep skating along the surface, or else try and go closer to the beating heart of my adopted culture and see what makes it tick. But I had traveled to England in hopes of having romance and adventure — what I like to call seeing the elephant. Observing violent male bonding rituals wasn't on the agenda. (And I'm sure it didn't help that my arrival in England coincided with football hooliganism reaching new levels of hysteria.)

So I gave football a miss and moved on to cricket...which I didn't take to either, but that's another blog post (and a half).

Coming Soon: Part II — How I Came to Change My Mind About Football, or At Least the World Cup, and This Blog Picks a Favorite!


A blog about me, an Aussie girl who came to the UK and stayed... said...

I like sports...some more than others...but I think it's all partic. one dimensional here in the UK - it's all about The Football...and I have no desire to attend a match as it just doesn't seem that the concept of disagreeing vehemently during then having a friendly beer afterwards exists. It's all very 'yobbo-ish' to me...and don't get me started on the ridiculous salaries that the players get behave appallingly! (RANT OVER)

But I loved the tennis (Wimbledon) and I do pine a little for the accessibility of Aussie Rules Football to 'the masses' in Oz...

oh and btw...I will be 'rooting' for Holland on Sunday - after all Dad is Dutch!

Anonymous said...

Like many Americans, I have watched a few games this tournament and though I find it mildly interesting, am not overwhelmed either. While it is indeed a whole different game from American Football, it is not so different conceptually from ice hockey and lacrosse. There’s a field, which has been divided into zones, and players with roles relative to those zones. The ‘clusters’ of players move back and forth in a series of quickly morphing territorial strategies (a rotating kaleidoscope on wheels) and in the process try to lob a missile into the King’s bedroom, that is, score a goal.

Ice hockey is faster – I mean, they are on ice after all! -- and has great punch outs to punctuate the tedious moments when nothing seems to be happening; lacrosse has many more scoring moments than either ice hockey or soccer (smaller and faster ball than soccer, especially relative to the net space to be guarded).

Maybe I am oversimplifying and a European will slam me for saying this, but it seems to me that if you know ice hockey and lacrosse, soccer is easy enough to grasp, but if you like ice hockey and lacrosse, soccer will leave you wanting. (As a game of course. I do appreciate the heated hometown and home-country rivalries that add ‘spice’ to the turnip stew.)

I am not underwhelmed by soccer because it is not “American” – it is pretty much an American sport now, too. I find it greatly superior to baseball, basketball, and televised golf – which are the video media kin of pachinko. (My mind is numb already, no TV anesthetic required.)

ML Awanohara said...

Aussie Girl: I had no idea the Aussies had their own version of football--is it called footy?--but I suppose it makes sense. No reason why they shouldn't, and it figures the rules of the game would evolve when it's being played at such a distance from the motherland...

So now I'm wondering about the key differences are between Aussie rules football and football for the masses. I just did a brief read on Wikipedia. It sounds a lot rougher, but does that make it more exciting?

I'm glad you mentioned this and that you also confirmed that nothing has changed as far as the yobbos go in the UK. (You didn't call them chavs, so does "yobbo" still hold, or does it date me?)

You also brought up something I was planning to say but then forgot--about the players' behavior. Though I will defend the sport in tomorrow's post, one thing I still feel very uneasy about is its sleaziness. In this World Cup, for instance, I abhorred the way the Uruguay striker Luis Suárez swatted away a sure Ghanaian goal and then ran about in celebration. After that, I desperately wanted Uruguay to lose, it had offended my sense of fairness so much. But then when Uruguay played the Netherlands, Wesley Sneijder made an "offside" goal, after which I really wanted Uruguay to win (I had been rooting for the Dutch before that). I will be rooting for Uruguay in the match against Germany tomorrow (unless they do something sleazy again).

Finally, you've alluded to how commercial the sport has become, with the star players amassing insane amounts of money. It crossed my mind to talk about this, but then I thought, that's the same with all major league sports these days. Have you been following the LeBron James story over here? I don't know how his salary compares with that of major league soccer players in the UK, but it's pretty out of control, though I understand he's taking a bit of a pay cut now that he's signing with the Miami Heats. But what is a pay cut when you're earning $30+ mill in salary and Nike deals, etc.? (Rant finally over...)

I'll be choosing my favorite to win Sunday's game on tomorrow's post. I don't have Dutch or Spanish ancestors (as far as I know) so am trying to keep an open mind!

awindram said...

Has to be Spain. Ironically, they're the true heirs to the Dutch total football teams of the 70s. Also the thought that such an awful, cynical footballer as Mark Van Bommel might become a World Cup winner is too hard to take.

ML Awanohara said...

Anonymous: As I will reveal tomorrow, much of my passion for the World Cup springs from its being played out on an international stage--something that appeals to us "seen the elephant" types. It would be hard for ice hockey to achieve that status. For obvious reasons, isn't it pretty much confined to the Far North?

Lacrosse: that's an interesting thought. I loved playing the game as a high schooler but always thought of it as quintessentially North American. I believe its roots can be traced back to Native American religion -- and that Native Americans still refer to it as the Creator's Game? That said, maybe it does have potential as a kind of ur-sport.

Anyway, I'm pleased to have your vote against calling soccer un-American. After I read this week's New Yorker comment, I had a moment of thinking: "You can't come home again!"

Anonymous said...

I think fundamentally - now that I have some time to think about it - that Soccer, Ice Hockey, and Lacrosse (obviously!) are tribal contests while American Football is military in nature. That is, while soccer, et al, are modern equivalents to competing bands of hunter-warriors, American Football teams are organized like Greek or Roman armies. Perhaps that's why the latter isn't universally popular?

ML Awanohara said...

Anonymous: Thank you for coming up with a reason for why American football hasn't spread much beyond our fair shores. I hadn't been planning to tackle that one--hahaha.

(Actually, as I understand it, a significant contingent of Brits rather like it, though others persist in calling it British rugby in disguise!)

You've also given me another reason to carry on using the word "football" to mean "soccer." We Americans can, and should, use the qualifier "American" to tell people that we mean our own (sui generis) game!

I'm further grateful that you didn't deliver a defense of American football along the lines of: "Soccer is for racist pansies who act like a linebacker or end just dropped them from the blindside every time somebody steps on their toes. I tried to watch the World Cup, but had to stop... I just can't fathom a guy getting ejected from a game for stepping on another dude's toes."

MikeH said...

As usual, I'm rooting for the underdog. So Spain is most likely to win ;)

Anonymous said...

Just watched the finals of Aussie football.The guys are hot, you have American elements (tackling)and Euro elements (kicking the ball around).

ML Awanohara said...

Interesting... I was having lunch today with a friend, and she said one of the obvious reasons I missed to like football, whether Aussie or otherwise, is the hotness of the players. I said, are they any hotter than athletes in other major sporting events. She replied that she thinks so as they have something beyond muscles and brawn.

Well, I'm tired of seeing pix of David Beckham and mesomorphs aren't really my type. But I concede, some of the players look cute running up and down the pitch. said...

I keep saying that I don't care about football, but I was surprised to find out that I have written 7 posts about the game in my blog! I had been stood up on a Valentine's Day because my then fiance went to see Aberdeen (his local team) played against Glasgow team. I had come up with some solution how to maintain a peace if our partner is a football junkie, only to get a counter-post from a football junkie! I still remember how my husband's best friend cried on his way home from Glasgow (that's 3 hours bus to Aberdeen) because Scotland lost against Italy and lost its chance to qualify the World Cup. I remember many, many nights when we had guests coming to watch important games (but every game IS important) and they would end up shouting at each other, stormed off of the house, or ran around the living room for winning the bet.

If you've been following my twitter, you'd also find that I woke up at 2 in the morning - Western Australia time - to watch the World Cup final. Alright, part of it because I thought I'd company my husband, but it's more because I was nosy, I wanted to watch the supposedly biggest game of the year.

And what did I do? I spent 90 minutes texting with my best friend in Jakarta who was anxious whether Paul the octopus was right, and we kept texting back and forth if there's something interesting going on. I had one eye on my phone and another on TV. I had my ears on my hubby but my mind on everywhere else (the hair colour and new cut of Torres, for example).

But most of all, I spent 90 minutes lusting over.... the referee! Howard Webb! He's got the best posture amongst 22 very fit, very famous, (not to mention very rich) footballers.

I must admit that I've been noticing Webb since at least a year a go, when I started to sit down with my husband and his friends watching one game after another. He's easy to remember, nobody wants to mess up with him!

Anyway, I still want to know what the hooha the football is about. So far, I still couldn't point the excitement.

Doesn't mean I'd stop writing about it, though :)

ML Awanohara said...

Very cute story about the World Cup final! And I know what you mean about Howard Webb. He's pitch perfect (so to speak!). His presence definitely adds to the drama. Only too bad the action didn't live up to its dramatic potential. Until Iniesta made that goal, Webb was presiding over a football farce.

As the Christian Science Monitor correspondent put it, "It never reached the heights of entertainment, never mind beauty. Once again FIFA's showcase game can be struck down as a dud."

Still, even an "ugly game full of hard fouls and cynical dives" has its appeal, I guess? At least, it hasn't completely put me off my budding football fandom, saying a lot...

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