The U.S. soccer fan's Bill of Rights
I don't wear a stars-and-stripes flag pin, nor do I have a yellow ribbon on my car (I don't even have a car!), but I love my country. Namely, I love it for the concept that it is -- one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I assume that all includes soccer fans. And so, in honor of this past July 4th, I've got some liberty and justice to lay down.
1. The Right to Watch Games the Way God Intended. For decades in the United States, soccer was played in cavernous stadiums stained with American football lines. The soccer lines were usually painted in yellow, as if the game itself were jaundiced. Other times, a track circled the field, or as was the case in Washington recently, a pitcher's mound loitered just outside the penalty area.
These things have done more damage to American soccer than anything else. Luckily, over the past few years, several soccer-specific stadiums have been built, and suddenly some of us can properly watch games. But still, there are too many places -- New England, New York, Houston, Seattle next year -- where fans must suffer through footballisms at least part of the season.
2. The Right to Be Respected for Having a Knowledge of the Game. The perception of the American fan is that his (or her) Americanism means he doesn't really understand how soccer should be played. This is one of the more insidiousness subtleties of the game's Euro-Latinocentrism. But the truth is, there are millions of us who grew up playing and studying the game. We fully grasp its nuances. We understand formations, strategies, defensive organization, match-ups, group play, etc. As a consequence, it's a slap in the face every time someone says something like: "European fans are so knowledgeable."
3. The Right to Have a Say in Our Local Clubs. Soccer's history is one of community. Most clubs in Europe were built from the bottom up, taking shape when folks in the neighborhood decided to put together a team. As such, the people have always had a voice in the direction of their club. This is, of course, anathema to the American model, which cedes all control to the owner, who is usually in it for either the tax write-off or the ego boost of being able to say "I own ..." at a cocktail party.
But there is a strong grassroots tradition in American soccer, from dad coaching his kids at the park, to the ethnic leagues like the old LASA League. And just because the soccer league here is now major doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to dictate some things now and then.
4. The Right to Free Speech During Games. Soccer's marketers spend a great deal of time worrying about how to please the soccer moms and the Prius dads -- the thick-walleted sweet-spot advertising demographic -- that if they had their way, they'd ban anything but Sierra Mist jingles during games. But sometimes something happens on the field that demands a loud, obscenity-laced tirade.
Truth is, swearing is in the soccer fan's DNA. So is questioning the fidelity of an opponent's mother. And mocking the loyalty of opposing fans. (Side note: Truly offensive language, like the racist remarks hurled at New England's Kheli Dube a few months ago in Columbus, are not cool. Nor protected by this document.) Quashing the fans' colorful language with threats of expulsion -- does this happen at NFL games? -- threatens to sanitize the game to the point of utter blandness.
5. The Right to Good Adjudication. A soccer game is only as good as the referee. And right now, the officiating in the U.S. is not keeping pace with the talent of the players. They are improving, and they are better than they used to be. There are even a few I like very much, like Jorge González and Terry Vaughn. But overall, the top-level officiating is still too inconsistent and it ends up ruining whole games. If there are not enough viable American referees, let's import some. Designated referees!
6. The Right to First-Class Sports-Fan Citizenship. Every soccer fan in the United States has experienced this: You walk into a bar hoping to watch a match, but the bartenders have all five TVs tuned to a midseason baseball game. You ask politely if he'll turn one of the TVs to the soccer match. He, of course, didn't know it was on and probably doesn't even have the right channel anyway. At which point, you walk out. This has to stop. American soccer fans have to demand that sports bars regularly include soccer in the lineup.
7. The Right Not to Be Relegated to the Far End of the Dial. Showing the entire European Championship was awesome and I applaud ESPN for putting the money into this. However, why were some of the games on ESPN Classic, bumped there by early-round action from the French Open? I love tennis, but like most American sports fans, I don't care about it until the semifinals. The Euros, on the other hand, were vital from the opening game. And they only happen every four years, whereas next year there will be another French Open. And the year after that. Soccer broadcasters always complain that the game doesn't get the ratings. But how can it if it is continually relegated to the Ocho?
8. The Right to the Best Players in the World. Two winters ago, MLS instituted the Beckham Rule, allowing every MLS team to sign any one player it wanted. Yet, two seasons in, there are still seven teams -- half the league -- that haven't taken advantage of this. This is unfair. Are these teams and their owners really that puckered up? Don't they see the standing room-only crowds and ubiquitous L.A. Galaxy No. 23 jerseys that show up to see David Beckham? And Cuauhtémoc Blanco isn't far behind in terms of his impact. The seven delinquent clubs should reward the fans unwavering loyalty with a big name.
9. The Right Not to Be Gouged to See the Best Players in the World. Of course, just because a club signs a big name, this doesn't give the league and the rest of the teams the right to jack prices. When L.A. comes to town, the price of tickets goes up. This is unfair to the fans who follow the home team and don't care so much about who the opponent is. They just want their team to pull out a win. End of story. No matter who the player is, it's the team that draws fans.
10. The Right Not to Endure the Annual 'Hey, Soccer's Pretty Cool' Article. Every year, an editor in the mainstream media convinces a writer to just give soccer a chance. Then, the writer goes out and experiences real soccer rather than just watching his 10-year-old daughter's house team. Suddenly, they have an epiphany, usually in the stands of, say, Old Trafford or while talking to someone like Thierry Henry.
This year, in particular, because of the Euro hoopla, there has been a rash of these articles, from Marc Stein's ESPN.com piece on the recent Steve Nash-apalooza or Chris Mannix's work for Sports Illustrated. Spare me, guys. The mainstream sports guy feels the passion, observes what great athletes soccer players are and comes to love the beautiful game is a tired trope. Furthermore, we don't need you to tell us that it's cool. We wouldn't be here otherwise.
[Several people have e-mailed since this article was published to remind me that Marc is a big soccer fan, and an even bigger Manchester City fan. I knew this, and I shouldn't have thrown him to the wolves. But I wish he did more soccer writing, other than asides in his NBA online chats. For example, why didn't he catch the first plane to Austria the minute the NBA Finals ended? I would've loved to read his take on the final. Or his live blog when the satellite went down during the semi and ESPN had to embarrassingly go to the studio.]