5 Life Lessons Taken From America Trying (And Failing) To “Get” Football

Football is very important to me.  And if that makes you scoff and scorn, that’s fine, it’s probably your issue.  I loved football as a child – I vividly remember watching the 1994 FA Cup Final, but can’t even picture the house I was watching it in.  I strayed from football as a mid-late teenager, then came out the other side, no longer remotely adolescent and I realised that actually, I do love it.

The surprising, overwhelming width of the Old Trafford pitch is one of my strongest childhood memories, and the emotional reactions to witnessing the Ronaldo-led counter attack in the video below are sensations I can still feel.  Anyone who has seen someone of that quality play live will know the feeling.  For those who haven’t – It is the same feeling you get when you momentarily think you’ve seen someone you know on an amateur porn site.

One characteristic of my football knowledge is how easily dateable it is.  I can remember all 10 contending goals from ‘Goal Of The Season’ 1996 but I don’t really know who Liverpool’s current centre backs are.  Skrtel and someone else maybe?  Some sort of bald nutter.  There has to be a bald nutter.  I used to act out the 10 nominated goals with my comically oversized garden goalposts thanks to having been the only football-loving kid sad enough to enter every competition in “Match” magazine – I won about 10, and although this may have fuelled my Mum’s horrific notion that she was psychically gifted, the positive side is that it’s also probably partially responsible for my secret optimism about my own life.

I think there was something special about that age for me, around 1996, being 8 years old.  Perhaps it’s the age at which I was old enough to fully understand what was going on in the football, but not old enough to really be interested in anything else, like writing derivative, falsely suicidal poems, sexual attraction, or the concept of independence.  To be that age and have ‘Euro 96’ happen in England, during the Summer holidays – the constant terrestrial broadcasting of games in recognisable stadiums, (and England being Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss away from the Final.).  I learned things about disappointment, chords (“Three Lions”) and unofficial merchandising strategies that I wouldn’t be able to give a name to for another 10 years.

I’m coming to the following point:  If you show me a clip of a World Cup or Euro tournament held in my lifetime, I’ll instantly be able to identify which it is.  Even if no signs, fans or goalposts are in view.  I’ve just watched that much of it, that the combination of the kits, the light levels and the grass makes it identifiable.  And the thing is, USA ’94 is by far the easiest World Cup to spot.  If you see 70,000 fans, in what looks like a Baseball stadium, with endlessly retreating single tiers, built like rim-less spectacles, no visible borders, just construction – just person after person after person, all in permanent sunshine that is too bright to convey its true heat, then it’s USA ’94.  If that’s not clear, this is what I mean – 

USA 94

The USA ’94 World Cup took the record for the highest attendance at a World Cup, averaging 69,000 spectators per game.  It still holds this record today, despite the tournament now including 32 teams rather than 24, and the sport being even more popular, fanatic and financed worldwide.  This probably tells us that the Americans of the day had whatever the 90’s equivalent of a F.O.M.O. was, and that occasion will always outweigh interest.  If you disagree with that last statement, ask yourself why you bother going to family occasions.  

At a tournament that saw Romario scoring permanently and casually, and where the now long-retired Marc Overmars was voted “Best Young Player” – It would’ve been almost literally a handful of Americans who had heard of either player before, or who subsequently heard of either again for that matter. 

21 years, a few jaded English Premiership stars, and 371 different flavours of half-time M&Ms later,  America is still failing to “get” football.  

In August 2014 I went to New York for a week.  I did a bit of this:

pizza 2

And a little bit of this:

pizza 3

And then some of this:

pizza 1

And reluctantly a bit of this:

pizza 4

More pertinently though, I did also do some of this:

FOOTBALL PIC 1

We took a taxi from Manhattan out to the town of Harrison, NY.  The place itself and the final parts of the journey had that kind of dusty American romance to them.  Big, deep-set houses, rows of permanently-closed shops – not closed down, just seemingly never open when you pass them.  We crossed unexpected single rail tracks, passed houses that could just as easily be prejudiced as Gingerbread Christmas as they could be suburban-swinging-murder-mystery-central.  It’s a feeling you only really get on holiday.  Even the least explored, most beautiful corners of your native land still express your formulaic nationality, and can’t touch the existential beauty of a simple building in a foreign land.  It’s the coincidental, circumstantial nature of your being in that precise place, combined with the unlikeliness of it ever being repeated.

We arrived suddenly at The Red Bull Arena, where the New York Red Bulls play their Home Soccer Matches.  The Holidaying Spirit, curiosity and Thierry Henry had taken us out of Manhattan to watch some low-level, high-drama Sporting action with some low-knowledge, high blood pressure families.

As exciting as the Summer evening weather, the free wave-able tea-towel and the ability to drink a 1.5 pint can of Bud Lite in our seats was (allowed presumably because no match-goer cares enough to cause any trouble), this game against the awkwardly named “New England Revolution” was a particularly indecisive, mid-season, lukewarm Saturday evening game.  (It has to be in the evening, it’s an event.  Nothing good has ever happened in the afternoon.)  But you wouldn’t have known it before kick off.  It was like the fucking F.A. Cup Final.  And not some sort of bullshit 2015 FA Cup Final, one from the 90’s that people actually cared about.  Out came 2 trumpeting soldiers, sandwiched and middled by 3 Transatlantic Katherine Jenkins clones (which admittedly is a huge improvement on Lesley Garrett clones).  Suddenly, about 24 hours after buttering my toast in London, I’m hand-on-chest, mumbling to an Opera-trumpet arrangement of Stars And Stripes, Or Star Spangled Banner, Or Oh Say Can You See, or whatever the fuck it’s called.  How else would a random Midsummer MLS Game begin?!  Not without, of course, the lets-get-ready-to-rumble stadium announcer’s hearty encouragement before, during, and for some reason, after this national anthem double chorus. 

Thierry Henry was ok, but to be brutally honest, his team-mates weren’t really good enough to collectively get the ball to him before he’d strayed offside.  He probably should’ve been deployed in midfield, in the same way that Phil Neville probably played up front for his school team, and scored 8 goals per game.  It probably didn’t help Thierry Henry that whenever he got the ball the aforementioned stadium announcer gave out a huge gee up Tony The Tiger style call for “Yourrrrrrrrrr Captain Thierrrrrrrrrrry Henryyyyyyyyy” – which must be very distracting.  With all of his announcements – corner kicks, throw ins, “Caution Cards” and “A change of boots for Bradley Wright-Phillips” it was probably the announcer who was most animated that night.  However, there were 4 great goals, and the whole thing was brilliant fun.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, at all, it’s that I just needed some silence afterwards to work out if it had been a dream, a computer game, or actual reality.

The other thing is, the stadium was half empty.  Or being America, it was half full.  I know it’s Football, in America and everything.  But it’s a weekend, in Summer, in a city of 8.5 million people, in a stadium of 25,000 capacity.  So that’s 12,500-ish spectators.  Sitting amongst them, with my beer and my commemorative tea towel, getting sunburnt, knowing that afterwards would be a taxi back to my hotel in Manhattan and my comfortable bed and weird chocolate bars still remains a striking memory of a moment of clarity and pure comfortable happiness.  (This is that warm middle ground between closeted safety and thrill-seeking, you push yourself, you enjoy yourself, you sit there in the perpetually warm mental bath) – But the point is, it’s a fairly pitiful attendance, especially compared to the collective 3.5 million ‘folks’ visiting World Cup USA ’94.  So I began to research New York Red Bulls Attendance Records.  And then Wikipedia quickly led me onto New York City FC Attendances.  (That’s a different team, the one Frank Lampard has gone to stand around offside for).  And this in turn led me very quickly onto the below, The New York City FC Official Chants Sheet:

New York City FC Chants

Here’s a handpicked cringeworthy couplet:

Come on New York score a goal it’s really very simple
Put the ball into the goal and we’ll go really mental

I highly doubt that if, at the time of singing, New York haven’t yet scored a goal, that it’s because they don’t know how.  Also, “Put”? – “Put the ball into the goal”?!  And then we come to “mental” – and in fact, “really mental” – as opposed to what?  “Rebound the ball off the post for a throw in and we’ll go quite mental, but put the ball into the goal….well that’s another matter – we’ll go really mental!  None of this faux-mental activity whatsoever sir!”  If an official chant sheet exists for an English club, you won’t see “mental” on there, but they might stretch to a “f******” – or at least they would’ve done in glorious 1996.  And this brings me to the thought that all that’s really missing from this chant sheet is a bit of swearing.  Look how it now works:

Come on New York score a goal it’s really fucking simple
Put the ball into the goal and we’ll go fucking mental.

Replace the “Put” with a “Kick’ and you’re cooking on gas-oline, or petroleum or whatever.  Now see if you can guess where the swearing would come in this second chant…

You might have some history but we don’t give a crud
Your team will always be a joke until they have a cup
(Shout the opposing team’s name)!!!!!

Yeah?  The thing is, the “crud” isn’t even the worst bit here.  The worst bit is the bit where you have to attempt to conclude an aggressive, insulting, tribal chant by shouting “New England Revolution!” or “San Jose Earthquakes!” depending on who you’re playing that day.  That is if you can summon enough courage to pretend to give a crud about your own team.

And finally, the heavily-asterisked footnote – Songs not on this list may still be sung during the game – Phew.

What I’ve learned from these experiences and thoughts is that America may not beat Britain at understanding football, but it wins at trying, shamelessness, openness, positivity and complete bullshit.  So in the spirit of the experiment, I’m going to conclude by trying to put together a 5 point shameless, open,  Transatlantically positive load of complete bullshit, inspired by the themes, memories and ideas I’ve just discussed.  So here are 5 Psychobabbling (but pretty true) pieces of advice that underlie the stories above:

1) Value your good memories – Go deeper into them, relate them to other things, reduce them to their essences and take inspiration from them.

2) Stop to realise the smaller once in a lifetime moments.  It’s not about flying off to watch World Cup finals, it’s about looking out of the car window on the drive from the airport.

3) Admit that you like what you like, and allow others do the same.

4) Try hard, go wrong, don’t worry.  And respect those who go wrong openly.  (Not by taking the piss like I did in the first 1500 words, by learning from them and complimenting them like I did in the last 50 words)

5) Attempt to like, and discover things you don’t understand.

Thus, full of memories and plans I conclude my Major League Soccer-Psychobabble.  Have a crudding great day.

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