The U.S. fan's bill of responsibilities
In my last column, I wrote the American Soccer Fan's Bill of Rights. Almost immediately, I got several e-mails that considered such a thing too presumptive and smacking of unwarranted entitlement. (I can imagine King George III thinking similar things back in the 18th century, although he probably didn't e-mail Thomas Jefferson his thoughts.)
I obviously don't agree entirely with the entitlement criticism, but it got me thinking about the flip side -- that is, the responsibilities of the American fan. Just as the U.S. Bill of Rights guarantees certain inalienable entitlements, there is also civic duty.
It's hard, sometimes, to be a soccer fan in the U.S., but we can take pride in our Nietzschean toughness.
1. Follow leagues around the world ... but support your local team. Here's the thing: 30 years ago, there was no Premier League on satellite TV, no blog dishing up-to-the-minute tidbits about what Ronaldinho ate for breakfast, no RSS feeds providing the latest transfer rumor from Greece. So immigrants and soccer fans couldn't continue to be full-bore fans of a far-flung team. So you cheered for the local club.
Growing up in Detroit, I remember going over to Canada to watch the Windsor Wheels. They were pretty awful, but this was pre-Fox Soccer Channel (gasp!), so it was the best we could get. And we felt that it was important to support a new quasi-Detroit team.
This is still true. The ability to watch Liverpool every Saturday now doesn't mean we shouldn't catch the Columbus Crew or Real Salt Lake or the Portland Timbers in person. That's what real fans do: They support their local club.
2. Watch games on TV. Like Thursday's MLS All-Star Game. See, ultimately, this is about revenue, which is about ratings. As is the case in every sport around the world, TV is the centerpiece. If the TV ratings are there -- and they are there more and more -- then channels like ESPN and NBC (for the Olympics) will show more soccer in better time slots. Maybe someday Fox will put a game on the main network instead of Fox Soccer Channel (though I'm not holding my breath). Even watch the local broadcasts, because that revenue could be the difference between an MLS team signing Juan Pablo Ángel or Sergio Galván Rey.
3. Make a pilgrimage to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. The United States' rich and textured history in this sport is more than 1950, Paul Caligiuri's goal, and Alexi Lalas' goatee. There are also Bethlehem Steel, the most successful club of the early part of the 20th century; Davey Brown, a 5-foot-3 striker from New Jersey, who scored 52 goals in 38 games in the 1926-27 season; and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, the genius who signed both Sonny & Cher and Led Zeppelin, and also owned the New York Cosmos. Their names and stories should be known.
4. Read David Wangerin's Soccer in a Football World. Trust me.
5. Stop Believing in the Myth of "Soccer Exceptionalism." You know those snobby music fans who love an obscure band and then hate them when everyone else learns about them? "Sellout" is their favorite word. Some American soccer fans are cut of the same cloth. They seem to like the game because of its niche existence. The underground nature -- with its hints of Euro-cool and Guy Ritchie-ian violence -- makes them feel like insiders. They talk about "the Old Firm" and "ultras" and feel like they're in on some secret that baseball fans will never understand. "If everyone liked it ... it probably wouldn't be very interesting," one Outside the Box reader wrote.
But the reality is, the game is, and will always be, interesting. Even this same reader admitted as much, continuing, "Soccer is about creativity and subtly as much as speed and athleticism." Exactly. And wouldn't the world -- even beyond soccer -- be a better place if more people learned to appreciate creativity and subtlety?
6. Educate the Masses. And by masses, I mean your work buddy who can recite Peyton Manning's career stats and thinks soccer means Pelé and that "pretty boy in L.A." Following from No. 5's conclusion, it's vital that soccer fans try to edify non-fans.
The best way to do this is to take a non-fan to a game, or have him over for breakfast and an EPL game on a weekend. Then, enlighten him. Describe the nuances of the holding midfielder's role. Explain offside and the difficulties of being a target striker. Show him the passion of the fans -- yes, there are many intense fans in the U.S.: the Barra Brava, the Texian Army, the Midnight Riders. And be sure to include some statistics -- "Did you know that the average soccer player runs about six miles in a game?" -- so it'll sink into his fantasy-game-numbered mind.
7. Support Soccer-Friendly Establishments. "I politely asked the bartender to turn on the match and guess what the answer was: 'Sorry, buddy! There are more people watching the U.S. Open.' I looked around. No one was watching. Oh, and it was on Friday, not the final round on Sunday."
This comes from an OTB reader. I think we all feel his pain. But there are plenty of painless soccer-friendly spots in this country. And they need our support, need to be heard -- with a ka-ching of the register -- that their soccerism is appreciated. Other places will catch on. So every now and then, skip the couch and watch a Champions League game at the 11th Street Bar in New York or the Cock n' Bull in L.A. or the Soccer Taco in Knoxville.
8. See Once in a Lifetime. Without the New York Cosmos, there would be no 1994 World Cup, no MLS, no Jozy Altidore. Bonus: The scene in which Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing cruises around New York in a limousine is priceless.
9. Know the Etymology of the Word "Soccer." Listen up. This is more important than it seems.
Slamming American soccer -- and American soccer fans -- is a great pastime for many non-American fans, particularly Anglos who are subconsciously bitter that their national team can't even qualify for the Euro Championship. One of their favorite insults is some variation of this: "Americans will never be good at football -- and, yes, it's called 'football,' you stupid arse."
But the truth is the word "soccer" derives from "association football," the game's original name, as opposed to "rugby football." In other words, it's a British word. The haters really hate when you point this out.
10. Play the Game. At least now and then, kick a ball around. Or a pair of rolled up socks. Or "in Trinidad, with the oranges," as some decent player once said in a movie. Playing humbles you and reminds you that the players we all criticize are still light years better than we will ever be. It also reminds you just what a fantastic game this is and why we are fans in the first place. Because it's beautiful no matter how ugly we make it.