IT’S wonderful that America has fallen in love with World Cup soccer, as it plays out across the greenswards of Brazilian host cities like Natal, Manaus and Curitiba. To walk through New York City on Monday night and hear the restaurant crowds’ whooping at John Brooks’s late-game goal, which propelled the United States over Ghana, was to experience soccer as it is experienced in the rest of the world: collective, noisy and cathartic.
But as someone who grew up in England in the 1970s and ’80s, I still can’t take seriously this idea of soccer as a wholesome multicultural bauble, the sporting equivalent of the small-plate gastropub. I’m bemused by these young people all over New York with their World Cup sticker albums, wearing club shirts from Barcelona and Chelsea — and even Paris St.-Germain, for heaven’s sake.
Until recently, when the Qatar Investment Authority bought Paris St.-Germain and scrubbed it up, investing tens of millions of dollars in new players, it was a terrifying club. Its stands were ruled by a group of fascist skinheads, the notorious Kop de Boulogne. Few Parisians dared venture to its games. At a match in 2008, its fans greeted the visiting club from Lens with a banner reading, “Pedophiles, unemployed and inbred.”
Longtime Chelsea fans now complain that games at their home ground, Stamford Bridge, once raucous affairs, have become as stodgy as a night at the opera. It’s now just thousands of well-behaved bankers and lawyers, chuntering approval at the latest high-priced midfield acquisition. The old frisson of hooliganism is gone.
In Northampton, the town where I grew up, the professional team was nicknamed the Cobblers, a reference to Northampton’s past as a center for shoemaking, but unfortunately also Cockney rhyming slang for “rubbish.” The Cobblers played at the County Ground a mile or so from our house, and on game days my parents ordered me inside and locked the doors as hundreds of fans walked to the game and back, chanting and leaving a trail of lager cans along Christ Church Road.
As a schoolboy, I had to play endless unwanted hours of mediocre soccer. There was the occasional sunny afternoon in our backyard when I would imagine myself as Glenn Hoddle, the midfield genius of Tottenham Hotspur and England’s national team. But if I had to play one of those rapid-fire word association games, here’s what would spring to mind: freezing, rain, ball like a rock, pain, bruise, yelling, losing. My favorite moment from the United States-Ghana match wasn’t the goals but Clint Dempsey’s taking a blow to the face and playing on.
As a cub newspaper reporter, I would drive to lower-division professional matches around the south of England. I would park my car, hide my stereo and walk to the match past a line of mounted police officers in riot gear. You took your life in your hands just eating the meat pies at these games. Grown men would swear with such explosive force you feared their teeth would pop out. Their feelings for the referee and the opposition, rendered in chant, were unprintable.
England’s national team used to be made up of hard nuts willing to bleed for the country on the field and drink off it. On their way back home from a friendly match before the European championships in 1996, they got soused and trashed a plane to the tune of more than $5,000 in damage.
I’m happy the players today are all listening to their nutritionists and thanking God for their blessings, but I wonder if ever there will be another Stuart (Psycho) Pearce to grace the England back four or a Paul (Gazza) Gascoigne to celebrate scoring by pretending to drink pint after pint of lager.
When I moved to New York, in 1998, the Yankees were en route to another championship. It was easy to love Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and the high-kicking Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez. I went to games at Yankee Stadium, read the works of Roger Angell and Roger Kahn. For one birthday, my wife even bought me a copy of “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” so I could nerd out on sabermetrics.
But when I tried to talk baseball with Americans, I could tell no one took me seriously. However much I knew, I could never really “know” the game in the same way as those who had endured hot summer afternoons of Little League or long losing droughts with the Mets. Anyone could like El Duque, the same way anyone can like Lionel Messi.
So it is with the new crowds of World Cup fans. If I feel a little protective of my game, it’s because my enthusiasm for it has been uneven and hard won. The good news is I don’t have to worry about this ever happening with cricket.