Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ain't That a Kick in the Head?

The 2014 World Cup starts this Thursday in Brazil and while people all over the globe anxiously await its kickoff, in America there are once again few signs of feverish interest in the event.

Last Friday’s WSJ had several articles devoted to the World Cup including one penned by an Englishman calling out American soccer fans. A Brit taking US soccer fans to task? Really? Despite the seemingly absurd premise, the author turned out to be spot on in his criticisms.

The Problem With American Soccer Fans:

The problem is your soccer obsessives. By my reckoning, they may be the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet.

If you've ever stumbled across this tribe as they spill out of a bar on Saturday mornings after 90 minutes spent watching a game contested by two teams based thousands of miles away, you'll know the sort of fans I'm talking about.

They refer to the sport as "fĂștbol," hold long conversations about the finer points of the 4-4-2 formation and proudly drape team scarves around their necks even when the temperature outside is touching 90 degrees.

It is this band of soccer junkies who have turned the simple pleasure I used to derive from heading to a bar to watch a game into something more akin to undergoing root canal surgery.

t's not that they all have the same stories about study-abroad trips to Europe, or that they get wildly excited about the simplest saves, or even, for inexplicable reasons, that 90% of soccer fans in the U.S. seem to root for Arsenal.

My biggest gripe is that all of this feels like an elaborate affectation.

Instead of watching the game in the time-honored way of American sports fans—by thrusting a giant foam finger in the air, say, or devouring a large plate of Buffalo wings—your soccer fanatics have taken to aping the behavior of our fans from across the pond.

The scarves thing is an obvious example, but it's far from the only one. There's the self-conscious use of terms like "pitch," "match" and "kit," the songs lifted directly from English soccer stadiums, and even the appropriation of terrace couture.

On a recent weekend, I went to a bar to watch the UEFA Champions League final and found myself stationed next to a soccer fan wearing a replica Arsenal jersey, a team scarf around his neck and a pair of Dr. Martens lace-ups. He looked like he he'd been born and raised along the Holloway Road. In fact, he was from Virginia.

The whole thing seemed to be less an expression of genuine fandom and more like an elaborate piece of performance art. Didn't we fight a war so you guys wouldn't have to take cues on how to behave from London?

Yes, yes we did.

A good rule of thumb is that the less popular a sport is, the more insular, insecure, arrogant, and annoying its fans are. Among the big four sports in the US, hockey fans are sometimes guilty of displaying these negative attributes in their defense of the wonders of their preferred sport. I know that hockey will never be as popular as football, baseball, or basketball in the United States, but I don’t care. If you like hockey great, if you don’t it’s your loss. Which is why I’ve against things like expanding the NHL to non-traditional hockey markets, the glowing puck on Fox, or other efforts to make the game more “approachable” to more fans. The game is great as is. Changing it to appeal to people who aren’t hockey fans isn’t going to make it better, it’s going to make it less appealing to those of us already in thrall to it.

But as bad as hockey fans can sometimes be, they can’t hold a candle to US soccer fans. What really makes the soccer fans especially precious and irritating is the way the wrap themselves up in a scarf of superiority based on the love of the sport overseas (especially in Europe) and its rejection here. They project an elite air because while ignorant Americans spend their time watching football, they have become enlightened and love the real futbol instead. They’re like snot nosed college kids who spend two semesters studying in Europe and then come back to America and tell you how everything-trains, food, work attitudes-is better over there.

Unlike many of my compatriots I don’t dislike soccer. And unlike most Americans, I will take an interest in and follow the World Cup. But I’ll do it in the same way I do with other sports, as an American. And I won’t call it futbol.