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Club vs. Country: Where Do You Stand?

In soccer circles one of the most interesting debates, at least to me, is always the club vs. country argument. For every person you ask, you will get a unique answer

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

With the USMNT playing some huge World Cup qualification games right now, I thought it would be a good idea to look at an issue that always sparks an seemingly tense debate: the idea of supporting a club team, country team, or both. Some fans are club above all else. Others are country above all else. Some find a way to split their time between both teams. Given the fact that MLS teams (or other club teams in the world) play more regularly than National Teams, it definitely makes for an interesting conversation.

Does this mean that if you support one camp or the other, that you may be in "the wrong"? No, it doesn't, at least not to me. One of the beautiful things that I greatly appreciate about the sport of soccer is the diverse backgrounds of the fans, whether it be supporters of club or country. We are all unique, thus we all have unique and interesting stories as to why we have come to adopt the teams we have. Some of us are brought into fanhood by upbringing. Simply put, one of the most common ways to learn to love a team is to grow up learning to support them from parents, relatives, and siblings. I feel confident in saying that this is likely the most common way to develop support for a team- from those people that are the closest to you in your life.

For United States soccer fans, access to games has not always been as easy as fans of other major American sports. MLS has really only appeared in a widely televised fashion the last handful of years. Given the fact that the league is only 15 years old, most of us are unique in the fact that we have adopted an MLS team at a much older age than most US sports fans normally learn to support a team. This could be as simple as liking the team that represents the city you live in, as Chicago fans were able to do when the Fire were founded. Some fans come to support a team due to friends or seeing them on TV. Others still might have adopted a club that a favorite player either already plays for or is traded/transferred to. This is becoming more prevalent with the increase of high profile signings in MLS in recent years. No matter how one comes to support an MLS club, I think most of us can agree that a lifelong bond is created once we decide to support the team we love. Some fans travel far and wide to love and support the team they choose to call theirs.

Looking at supporting a country, or National Team, may seem more straightforward than choosing among a multitude of soccer clubs. Most of us would assume that fans would automatically support the team of the nation they were born in, right? Well, not so fast. I don't need to tell anyone how ethnically diverse the United States (and really any country in the world now) has become in the last 50-100 years. Many fans have multi-heritage backgrounds. In some cases, parents might have been born in different countries. In yet other cases, families move from one country to another. This can help create an appreciation for two separate cultures, yet make it harder to pick a National Team at the same time. As an example, do you support the country you were born in or the one that you have lived a large chunk of your life in? I think situations like this are where parental and peer influence can tip the scales, so to speak, and help shape that person's decision of which National Team to support for life. So it's not always as easy as choosing the country where you live in currently in terms of supporting a National Team. You will see that in a few of the comments below.

Another factor to consider when looking at soccer on the National Team level is that there are some similarities to MLS in terms of availability to potential fans. Again, until the last handful of years, it was hard to watch the USMNT, especially depending on where you lived. Of course World Cup games made the television (as well as Olympic play), but for many fans (myself included growing up in a rural area), that was the only time you could watch the US National Team play. This is a problem now solved as a variety of networks, cable/satellite providers, and specialty soccer packages are available to fans nationwide. The dramatics of the 2010 US World Cup team really helped to spur the current explosion of soccer growth in the US, at least on the international level. Additionally, MLS as a league has really grown and evolved in the past 5-10 years, and quality of play is much better. This all adds up to an unprecedented growth and popularity upswing of soccer in the USA. And I don't see this slowing down anytime soon, in fact I see the sport continuing to grow at a healthy pace. Increased, wide viewing access to games for all fans can only help the sport even more.

Yet another thing to consider in this whole equation involves supporting an international club. We have already covered MLS and National Team support, but a good chunk of US soccer fans have learned to love international clubs from a variety of places around the world. While it seems that leagues like the English Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A obviously gather the most attention and support, I have also met fans of European clubs that I have never even heard of. It's a sign of the times when your average US sports fan can recognize the jersey of an English Premier League club on the street, even if they are not a soccer fan. Much like television trends for MLS and the USMNT, in the past handful of years English Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A soccer is all over US television. Whether that is courtesy of ESPN, Fox Soccer, or a soccer pack available on satellite television packages, access to international club soccer is at an all time high. Rather than a game here and there, fans can choose from a handful or two of games each weekend. Thus, true devoted support of an international club is made possible for US fans due to continuous immersion which was not even possible just a few short years ago.

When I came up with the idea for this article, I decided I wanted to do something a bit different than just prattle on with my own thoughts. Whenever I watch a soccer game in person, one of my favorite things to do is to ask other fans that I meet how they came about liking the club that we will be watching. As I mentioned earlier, every story is unique, thus every fan has an interesting and enlightening story to tell. Some of the most memorable parts of attending soccer games in person for me are the stories I am able to take away from fellow fans. You can't help but feel closer together with the fans of the club you support once you share with each other why you wear the shirt you do. It truly makes one feel like they are present with a huge family of thousands or tens of thousands of supporters vs. feeling like everyone is a stranger. Given the fact that fans travel internationally to matches, it's incredible to me to be able to stand beside someone from another country, yet feel right at home pouring your hearts out side by side in support. Although you might live 10, 500, or 5,000 miles apart, for that 90 minutes you are one in the same. And that is the essence of the sport that we all love. It truly does bring people together, no matter the club team or National Team you support.

I decided to ask some of the writers here at HTIOT for a short blurb on how they look at the issue of supporting club vs. country. I also asked a few fellow friends from Twitter for their thoughts as well. I figured that the best way to demonstrate the diversity of what I just typed in the above paragraphs was to get input from multiple people, rather than just me. I could tell from the responses that I got, which I will share with you, that supporting a club or National Team is a deep, intimate issue for all those involved. In terms of HTIOT, that is why we are all here. We don't just merely watch a game here and there. We live, breathe, and consume all things Fire. And I am sure that all of you that deeply support a team feel the same way.

Let's start off with some of the HTIOT writer responses. Here is what Rudy Gomez had to share:

As a Mexican-American, I was brought up to love my country of birth and the country of my heritage. And to this day, I do love it but as I've grown older, my love for this city has grown leaps and bounds. As I learn new things about Chicago, it expands that love that much more.

That reflects totally on my soccer sense. I have missed Mexico games (that is the side I chose once I could make up my own mind) in person or on tv. The love I have for the city aside, the fact that my local team is there week in and week out and the identity it has build on the civic pride, it'll have me choosing the Fire over the national team of my liking.

Next up we have Ruben Tisch:

I'm a more passive fan of the USMNT. The last time I was standing with the Outlaws was the 2006 Qualifying game in Bridgeview against T&T. While fun, It was a pale comparison to the excitement of a game in Section 8. Maybe it was because of the crappy songs (We Love Ya), the false camaraderie that comes from cheering for the same team but living in different communities, or the generic-ness of A.O. (American Outlaws Supporters Group). Being in the stands for Fire games feel more special then for USMNT games.

On the game itself, I also prefer watching the club game. The teamwork and intricate passing and beauty of soccer is more evident then on a national level, (Unless you're Spain because they all come from one or two teams and are familiar with each other). However, the measuring stick for soccer is and always will be the International game in this country. And there's something defiantly human (for better or worse) about comparing yourself to the next guy over. You don't get that in the local game because of the diversity of it. The Fire alone have representatives from 8 different countries.

I lean more towards the club game, but I don't really put one over the other. It's all soccer to me.

Nick Fedora had a bit more to say on this issue. He told me that this is something that gets him pretty fired up:

Club vs. Country seems to be a debate that has recently surfaced with strong opinions on both sides of the line. I strongly support the club side as the Chicago Fire (and Fulham FC) are what I watch week in, week out. I watch these guys, cheer for these guys, hate the other guys that foul them, write about the team, and spend money I can't afford to give up to go to the pubs and talk about the team or go to the matches or watch the games via satellite.

I can't say the same thing about the US Men's National Team that plays once or twice every few months. Most of the players called in I don't have a chance to watch week in week out. It becomes unreasonable to keep track of the form for each player overseas and Mexico that regularly sees time in Jurgen Klinsmann's lineup. There is a disconnect there with players for which I feel relatively neutral. Jozy Altidore had a bad game against a mid-table Dutch team? Cool story, bro. Clarence Goodson got sent off playing for whichever team in Norway or Denmark? Ok, fine. That doesn't affect who I support. Get sent off every game for all I care. You used to play for Dallas after all... which brings me back to the club-level passion.

Furthermore, I do not feel very connected with the country in which I live. I suppose some of it is because I find interest in a wide variety of other countries worldwide (including my "adopted" homeland Finland), but it's hard to really pinpoint the exact cause of my patriotic malaise. On the contrary, I whole hearte-ly embrace and enjoy every minute that I live in Chicago. I am familiar with many neighborhoods, the challenges that arise just to stay in the city, the different people I encounter by walking around downtown, the memories I have created, and the significant landmarks that will forever stand in the city. This is my home. I have finally found a place where I belong in life and it is in Chicago. The fact that I am moving to Hollywood for school/work in the spring is already crushing my heart.

There's so much more I can write about this, but I've already written way too much. If you see me at a tailgate or pub and want a real throw down discussion, I'm all for it. The USMNT are back on the backburner and the debate has really mellowed since the last round of qualifiers."

Mark O'Rourke is up next, and this is his stance on the debate:

The 2010 World Cup kind of changed how I felt about the USMNT. I was living in China at the time in a dormitory with people from other countries who also had national teams in the WC (Cameroon, Japan, Australia, Nigeria and England). Being in another country on it's own instilled a sense of patriotism I've never experienced before. The World Cup just added fuel to this. The England/USA game was on at 1 a.m. The Brits refused to watch the game in the same room as the Americans, so they went to a separate room. We set up a stereo outside the room in the hallway with the Team America theme song queued up ready to go. When Dempsey's scored, we hit play on the stereo and ran up and down the hallway with an American flag. It was a blast. The loss against Ghana a week or so later in the knock out stage was the first time I was really upset about a USMNT loss.

I'm not sure how "rah-rah-rah, go USA" I will be in 2014 now that I'm back state side. I think I might actually need to go to Brazil so I can annoy citizens of other countries and perpetuate the American stereotype to really get into it. Honestly, I don't think national teams can really be called teams. They're just a group of guys who don't practice all that often, play games incredibly infrequently and never get a chance to develop team chemistry. People are worried about the back line of the US team. There have been only 11 USMNT matches this year, and I don't think we've started the same line up in the back more than twice. During the loss in Jamaica we had Michael Parkhurst, Clarence Goodson, Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson starting in the back. I think that's the only time in 2012 where we had these 4 on the back line together. I heard some one once mention the idea of postponing all domestic competitions for a year and turning the World Cup into a year long event. That's an incredibly unrealistic scenario, but it is interesting one for discussion.

Resident Fire fanatic and Arsenal aficionado Dili Yang had this to say:

Club versus country is a difficult question, especially here in the United States where so many people are first or second generation immigrants -- and even if ancestors further back are from a certain country, soccer
fans may be more likely to support that country than the US. It’s not just the dilemma of club versus country, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s the question "well, what is my country?". The USA is comprised of multiple, constantly changing viewpoints.

In any case, it’s never been an issue for me. I was born in China and am still firmly entrenched in the culture, so there’s no doubt that if the Chinese Men’s National Team were to make it to the World Cup, my support would be wholeheartedly behind them. It feels like part of who I am. For now, I tolerate the USMNT. I can cheer for them and be upset at losses, but I won’t be torn up about them. If there’s any national team I do support, it’s the USWNT - and they won me over with their charisma, style of play, and penchant for kicking ass. I’m still
waiting for the USMNT to do that.

Even if it was an issue, it would always be the club over the country for me. Firstly, if you support a club in a certain league, you will hate other places and players in the same league (and therefore country). Secondly, I’m still a patriotic person, but clubs are more localized. Intimate. Easier to identify with. The US has become so globalized and is so varied that it almost feels like Chicago is its own country and the different areas are cities. It’s much easier to buy into "being a Chicagoan" than "being a United States resident".

Weighing in with his thoughts next is James Coston:

Club versus country is one of those arguments that seems to pop up regularly around major international tournaments as well as crucial qualifiers.

I love the Fire. I follow them more closely than any team, be it in MLS, the EPL, or even international teams such as the United States Men’s National Team. The fact is, if you’re good at the international level, you’re probably doing something right at the club level to get that call-up in the first place.

However, I’m aware that there are casual fans in this country who basically follow a European team exclusively and then follow the USMNT. I’m not a huge fan of this, but it beats them supporting England, Brazil, Spain, etc.

In my mind, the Nats have the larger spotlight. When they do well, it’s front page news in most sports sections nowadays. As someone who remembers the dark days when such news would be relegated to page 11, it’s a nice to change to see the ESPN’s of the world paying the game serious attention.

As an MLS supporter, when the USMNT does well, it brings exposure to the league. It gets people out to Toyota Park even if none of the players on the national team wore the cf97 badge (so keep at it, Sean Johnson, so we actually have someone on the team to cheer for).

I’m not a big fan of those who support a club and are then basically negative towards the international game. In my mind, that’s the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.

So while I care more about the Fire on a day-to-day basis, I recognize that our overall success is directly tied to how the Stars and Stripes perform.

HTIOT and writer Stephen Piggott wanted to share this:

This is a very difficult question for me to ask. Living in a different country from the one you were born in makes it even harder! I have a very strong affiliation to Ireland and watch every one of their games. Since I don't have the privilege of going to see Ireland play in Dublin 4-5 times a year as many others do, I don't take the games for granted when they do play. The US team plays a lot more friendlies and since the team plays all over the country, the likelihood of you being able to watch the national team live at least once a year is very high. All that being said, since I've lived in the United States for most of my life, I do support the US team as well but not as passionately as Ireland.

For me I don't have a leaning one way or the other in the debate. I support both club and country and since they hardly ever conflict with one another, I don't have a strong distaste for one over the other. I am happy when Fire players get called into their national teams because it shows that they are playing well and if someone gets injured while on national team duty, it's just part of the game and is out of our hands. International football also provides us a distraction from our club teams, which at times (like this weekend) can be much needed, especially for people who live and breath the sport.

Moving outside of HTIOT, I asked a couple of friends and fellow Newcastle supporters to contribute. Both Rob Moyer and Tom Ziemer support the USMNT as well as various club teams, both in MLS and abroad. Here is Rob's take:

I feel that the Club vs. Country debate is an interesting one especially given the nationalistic pride that seems to permeate throughout the United States. As a USMNT, NUFC, and Union supporter (season ticket holder as well) there has naturally come with supporting these clubs a hierarchy in terms of which I favor over the other. When I first started watching the beautiful game (2002 World Cup) I was quickly involved with the USMNT love affair as they ran to the quarterfinals where they ultimately lost to Germany 1-0 on an infamous Torsten Frings handball. From there, I began to find myself watching more of the game and with international matches only taking place once or twice a month at the most, moving to the club scene was the obvious next move. I knew of MLS but without a real TV presence in the States and the lack of a local club (the Union came around in 2010) I immediately looked abroad.

Initially, I was really more just a lover of the club game. I hadn't immediately picked a club team to watch but rather watched matches from multiple leagues across Europe, appreciating the unique style of play and culture each league brought to the table. Ultimately, with the Premier League having the greatest TV influence stateside and being considered by most the top league in the world, I decided to choose a club from England. In Newcastle I saw a dedicated yet success-starved fan base whose loyalty and love never strayed for a second. Whether they were chasing a Champions League spot or trying to avoid relegation, SJP (St. James' Park) was continually at capacity while they always sold all the tickets they were allotted for away matches. This was a club I felt I best identified with and was the one I decided to support.

The Union finally came to be in 2010 after previous attempts had failed to bring an MLS team to one of the largest cities in the country. I immediately grabbed season tickets, more out of love for the game than love for a club that had just been founded. I found myself enjoying matches but being rather turned away by the quality of play which wasn't on the same par of that of the Premier League. Still, this was my local club and I vowed to keep going to the matches and supporting them. To this day, I have a far better and deeper connection with fellow NUFC supporters than Union supporters, which speaks to the level of togetherness that the club instills. So while I would say the Union are a distant 3rd behind the USMNT and NUFC, I would not place either our national team or the Toon above the other. I enjoy each for the unique place that they have in the game I love. The Yanks provide me with a chance to support my fellow countrymen on a different stage such as the World Cup and Gold Cup while NUFC chase different honors that will never see these two favorite teams of mine ever meet in any competition.

I feel it is because of the fact that club teams and national teams never play one another that supporters do not have to pick between one or the other as their favored team. Enjoy each for the unique experience they offer you as a supporter and embrace the fact that you can have two favorite teams in the same sport.

And here is Tom's view on this discussion:

I've always felt that supporting club and country don't have to be mutually exclusive actions. Really, it comes down to two different relationships. It's only natural to have a more consistent affinity for your club team, because, for the most part, you watch it on a weekly basis. But the national team offers a different sort of feel, a patriotic sort of emotion that, for me, might even be stronger at its peak.

Of course, it's easier for me to say all of this, considering I don't yet support a specific MLS club. Cheering for Newcastle United doesn't really create any conflicts when it comes to the national team. But I'd like to think that when I do settle on a team, I'll still pull for the red, white and blue the same way I do now.

Finally, I reached out to Michael Dovellos, who is a Fire fan and a huge USMNT fan. This is what he had to share:

I love soccer. It's simple.

My two favorite teams are the Chicago Fire and the US Men's National Team. I have been a fan of the Fire since their first game in 1998. I love being a Fire fan. I enjoy supporting a club that exemplifies "Tradition, Honor, and Passion" at every game. Despite being in our infancy as a club, we have great history in our 15 years. In 1998, as a 6 year old, I looked up to and admired the 1st Fire Legends - Frank Klopas, Jesse Marsch, Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, and Zach Thornton. At 6 years old, the Fire was the first club I followed regularly.

While my love for the Chicago Fire is strong, I have a great love for the USMNT.

I took a while to think why I love the USMNT so much. I thought for a while and came to a few conclusions. First, the USMNT is the team that represents our country internationally. We pick all of our best players from around the globe, and put them together to represent all of us. When Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and co. put the US Jersey on, they represent every American. And in turn, American soccer fans band together, put aside differences, and support OUR nation. (For a short while, during a USMNT game Fire fans can forget about their rivalry with FC Dallas and root for Brek Shea when he puts on the US jersey.)

As a Fire fan and a national team fan, I have been told by radical fans to choose between the two. Why should I have to choose? How is it that I can I love my mother and father equally without issue, yet have to choose a single soccer team to support?

As you can see from the above responses, everyone has a clear, deep rooted love for the team or teams they support. Whether that be an MLS club, the USMNT, or an international club, soccer brings us all together under a sort of umbrella with other fans that also pledge their love for the same clubs that we do. My hope is that you enjoyed getting to hear some personal stories, insights, and feelings that have looked into the very fabric of being a soccer fan.

No matter that team you support, I greatly encourage everyone to feel free to share their experiences about how they learned to love their teams below in the comments section.