Watching soccer in the USA was never going to be an easy task, such is the popularity of Baseball and American Football, but following the impact of Brand Beckham, the game is starting to garner the recognition across the pond.
There’s something slightly depressing about two grown men knocking on the door of an “Irish” pub in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 10.45am on a Sunday, trying to get in to drink. Okay, more than slightly depressing. But we aren’t drunks; we’re just British football fans stranded in the United States, and we’re on a mission: it’s April 2012, the Arsenal-Manchester City game is on TV, only five hours behind, and we’ll be damned if we’re going to miss it.
Finally, after many knocks and a couple of plaintive phone calls, the door opens. A tired-looking bartender lets us inside, and we take up our places at the bar, the only people in the whole pub aside from the bartender and an old Mexican man who is still trying to clean. The barkeep stoically searches through the ridiculous number of cable channels as we collectively hold our breath.
After what seems like an age scrolling past endless NFL channels, Fox Soccer flickers into being and Warren Barton appears, giving his pre-match analysis of the two teams. Warren looks dapper in a shiny grey suit, his hair highlighted and coiffed, his skin an orangey-brown. He is Fox Soccer’s resident expert on all things EPL (as they call it). He seems uneasy in this role, however, glancing self-consciously at the camera and using his hands a bit too much. The other presenters seem far more self-assured, staring straight down the screen at you as they discuss City’s title aspirations in their weird American-infused jargon.
It’s 11am – kickoff time, and also legal drinking time. Two Magners (this is an Irish pub after all) to start us off. I’d like to welcome you to the surreal experience of watching football, or “soccer” (an abbreviation of Association Football, strangely enough originally a British word), in the US of A.
Americans have historically, and notoriously, been slow to take to soccer, the reason for which many theories have been posited. One says that they don’t like the lack of goals, that it’s “too boring”. But NASCAR is insanely popular over here, and nothing ever happens in that. Okay, well aside from the odd fireball. Another theory says that the schedule, August to May, is too long and drawn out for Americans. US sports are, generally, split into short schedules that ensure they don’t clash too often.
For example, American Football begins in September and runs until February. Baseball then begins in April and ends in September. It allows fans to concentrate on one sport, and then move on to another when the time comes. No such luck with soccer, which overlaps all of them and never really ends anyway, what with international tournaments and/or the absurd spectre of the transfer window to hold our rapt attention indefinitely.
But soccer is gaining a foothold in the States. It is played increasingly in schools; college soccer is now broadcast on television; David Beckham’s appearances for LA Galaxy have caught the eye (and the gossip columns); and the emergence of the EPL as the most popular league worldwide seems to have finally engaged people’s attention. They haven’t really grasped the full concept of soccer fandom, but in true American style they’re enthusiastically giving it a go anyway.
The American attitude to following soccer, and supporting a team, can, I believe, be summed up with one story. It came from a conversation I had with an acquaintance and fellow Arsenal fan about Robin van Persie’s summer defection to Manchester United. He didn’t seem at all perturbed by what I saw as an avaricious and heartless move, one done merely for money and the hollow pursuit of glory. Yes, I’m biased and partisan, but that’s what being a supporter is all about. The problem was that he wasn’t. He didn’t seem to care about the nature of Van Persie’s treachery; in fact he claimed that he understood his need to move. This is a man who professed his love for the club, but then didn’t begrudge a player, whom Arsenal supported and nurtured for years through injury after injury, and who had only played one good season for a club he claimed to love, his traitorous move.
Obviously, when viewed calmly and rationally, Van Persie’s decision is completely reasonable: more money, better chance of success, escaping a sinking ship, etc. And maybe in America players switching teams for money is a regular occurrence. Hell, whole teams move cities seemingly on a whim. But the point is that soccer fans aren’t supposed to be calm or rational. Soccer is visceral, it’s about emotion and rivalries and lifelong attachments, something American sports fans can understand, except for the obvious local differences.
But in English soccer, local is everything. This is what makes Americans “supporting” English teams so peculiar – how do you claim to support Arsenal and then not understand that defecting to Manchester United is unconscionable? When you claim to support a team, buy the gear, watch the games, but then don’t do your homework, it rings a little hollow.
As an aside, a friend of mine who I recently got interested in English soccer told me that the basis on which he chose Everton to support was that they have Tim Howard on their team, and occasionally give a home to Landon Donovan during the MLS off-season. Although I suppose that’s better than choosing Barcelona as your club because they win everything constantly, which seems to be the fashion over here.
Yet another problem of being a soccer fan in the US is, as mentioned briefly above, the problem of time. Here in Michigan we are five hours behind the UK; on the west coast it grows to eight. Want to watch the 12.45 Saturday lunchtime kickoff? Well, better set your alarm for 7.45am (4.45 in California). On a Saturday. And good luck finding a pub open that early. No wonder the crowds aren’t exactly flocking to the nearest TV. Although there are a hardcore bunch of San Franciscans who meet up at ungodly hours every match day to watch Arsenal and drink copiously, so I guess there is still hope.
Oh, and you can completely forget about it if you support a team outside of the top division. My other team is Bournemouth, a result of spending a fair bit of my childhood on the south coast, and in order to follow them I have to rely on whatever scraps the Guardian website deigns to fling me. Again, this is understandable as Americans struggle to accept even the top teams, so anything below that is certain to be ignored. With enough exposure (I’m pretty sure FIFA Soccer 13 will help to raise awareness more than any number of grassroots movements or celebrity endorsements), hopefully people will start paying attention to teams other than Chelsea and Barcelona.
I suppose there’s hope for America yet. The interest is there; it’s small but it’s increasing. The more effort the networks put into showcasing the best the sport has to offer (the Premier League, the Champions League, La Liga et al) the faster it will grow. NBC purportedly gaining the next round of broadcast rights will help soccer reach a whole new audience (currently it’s cable-only). With so much competition from other, more established sports, it will probably never gain the popularity it enjoys in the rest of the world, but at least it’s beginning to find its niche.
And anyway, I actually think I prefer following the sport from over here. If you can ignore the strange Americanised jargon (“spot kick”, “shut out” etc), the frighteningly early kickoff times, and the fact that you’re looked upon with pity by fans of “real” sports, being a soccer fan is actually surprisingly stress free. If my team loses then I can ignore it if I choose. I’m not bombarded with updates from the media – I can find the information if I search it out, but it’s not lying in wait for me when I open a newspaper or turn on the TV.
People don’t take it as seriously over here, which obviously has its downsides but at the same time takes a lot of the pressure off being a fan. Nobody will harangue me if I wear an Arsenal shirt out and about; no opposing fan will try and pick a fight with me in the pub. Everyone seems to realise that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Mostly because they have more important things to worry about – like baseball.