On Soccer, Fandom, and Authenticity

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

(This evening, my wife Sarah was venting her frustration over a few mild Twitter slap-fights, the common thread of which was long-time fans of the game taking a dump on the authenticity of new fans or groups of new fans. I encouraged her to write about her feelings; she encouraged me to stop being an editor and write the damned essay already. These are Sarah's thoughts, vetted and edited by Sarah, set to words by Sean, just for clarity.)

I’m writing today, through the person of my manservant Sean, to make clear my feelings about soccer and fandom and authenticity.

I should explain. I am a soccer fan, a Chicago Fire supporter who also watches the Premiership with interest. I’m not a kinda, sorta fan - I’m into it. I play fantasy soccer. I tweet about injuries. My Twitter stream is full of soccer players and journalists. It’s like that.

My husband, though, is about 20 times farther into it than I am. He’s writing this; we’re talking about it, he’s making the words happen. One of his earliest gifts from me was an imported CD of Championship Manager 99/00. This goes way back for him, back before us; it’s from the primal darkness. It’s in his bones.

When we met, football was already in him. He’d watch Champions League or MLS (or EPL or Bundesliga or La Liga or Serie A) games on the television, and it never seemed that interesting, honestly. There were moments that were cool, but overall … whatever. It’s his thing, and I like it at least a little; could be worse.

Then we went to see a game.

I’d never seen live soccer before. I should mention that I am extremely empathetic; I feel other people’s emotions with them to a frustrating degree. Typically, the waves of feeling I receive when in public are overwhelmingly negative; people, when herded into groups, are peevish and loud, and the general antipathy hits me a sinking feeling in my face and stomach. Everyone’s unhappy, and I can feel it.

We were in Columbus, and the Crew were hosting D.C. United. It was a rare vacation for Sean and I - it was his birthday present, tickets and a hotel and the whole thing; I’d bought it and set it up, and we were both very excited. He had filled me in on the teams - this was 2005; DC was Moreno and Gomez and little Freddy Adu.

Watching it live was exhilarating. The effort of the men, the clear expressions of hope or dismay, the lovely little touches that didn’t quite make it through standard def - and the gusher of positive feeling from a group of supporters decked in black and white, seated on one end of the stadium. It was a hot, sunny afternoon, and the chants and songs from Barra Brava connected me to the game - these people, this passion, this moment, this game, these games, all these games, all this passion, all these people. I felt it, and, feeling, understood at last.

Fast-forward a decade or so. I support the Fire. I watch every game, read every blog post, subscribe to every Twitter feed. Sean runs this blog, and half his stories come from me going, "Hey, did you see this?" And yet, there’s people out there who’d tell you I’m not a real fan.

I didn’t start loving the game as a toddler, when my father gave me a ball the size of a grapefruit then laughed in delight when I nutmegged my father. That never happened. That’s not me. I didnt’ grow up loving the game, so my love now is, apparently, sadly without merit.

I didn’t love the game before my spouse - in fact, he brought me into it. Can I get a shout-out for the ‘I-like-this-to-please-my-husband’ assumption being patriarchal horseshit? I love this game for itself, and for the emotional connection it creates, and for my history in my life interacting with that emotional connection, and for a hundred other half-glimpsed reasons like anyone else.

I support a team that’s not even from my town! I mean, Chicago? Just because they were the closest team around, and my husband was super into them, jeez, why not just put up a map and throw a dart at it?

I recently attended a US Open Cup game played between Detroit City FC and RWB Adria. I sat near the Northern Guard. I felt their feelings. However new their allegiance, their commitment is right there on their faces. This may start as just an experience, but it seems sure to grow into a true love of the game. The football takes care of that.

At some level, I’m disappointed by those who’ve cast aspersions on this group or that group of football supporters as ‘hipsters.’ Haven’t you been to a game? Don’t you know its power? Do you think irony’s enough to keep the whole of football at arm’s length? Because I don’t.

In This FanPost