American soccer fans are fine, A response to Jonathan Clegg (WSJ)

Normally during my lunch hour, I like to read the Wall Street Journal and catch up on daily news, markets, some tech innovations, etc (surprise, I do have interests outside of soccer). Today though a soccer-specific article came up on the front page and I thought to myself “Cool, let’s see what’s going on.”

The article was written by WSJ editor Jonathan Clegg on the problem with American soccer fans.  Clegg, an Englishman, talks about his observations of fans in New York bars and other places where people like to congregate to watch the big European matches.  As indicated by the title of the article, he seems to take issue specifically with how some of the hardcore fans appreciate the game and wishes we develop our own soccer culture independently.  Broadly speaking, Clegg has grouped his disdain into three categories: pretentious vocabulary, attire, and perception.

Again you can read the rest of the article here but I’m going to break this down point by point as I had a couple of issues with what’s being said.

Pretentious Vocabulary

They refer to the sport as “fútbol,” hold long conversations about the finer points of the 4-4-2 formation and proudly drape team scarves around their necks even when the temperature outside is touching 90 degrees.

Okay, maybe fans are discussing the finer elements of a 4-4-2 just to one-up each other in a never-ending battle to prove who’s a superior fan.

Or maybe they’re just trying to communicate their point to an interested friend who follows the sport.  If two avid gardeners are talking about a type of plant, they’ll probably want to say something more  sophisticated than “water your plants often”.  Besides,  how exactly are we going to invent our own terminology and ensure everyone understands it? We use England’s terms and pronunciation (fullback, defensive midfielder, number 10, etc.) because, surprise surprise, we speak the same language.  This point was really clutching at straws.

Attire and customs:

On a recent weekend, I went to a bar to watch the UEFA Champions League final and found myself stationed next to a soccer fan wearing a replica Arsenal jersey, a team scarf around his neck and a pair of Dr. Martens lace-ups. He looked like he he’d been born and raised along the Holloway Road. In fact, he was from Virginia.

The whole thing seemed to be less an expression of genuine fandom and more like an elaborate piece of performance art.

Alright fair enough, no one really likes posers who take it to that extreme. But by being a scarf-wearing super fan who eats artisanal toast, talks tactics, and gets over-excited for good saves while complaining about how much debt Manchester United is in, this guy is doing what Americans do with anything new they encounter: incorporate what we like, ignore what we don’t like.  Tapas and tactics? Great.  Flares and racist chants?  I think we’ll pass

Because we are a multicultural society, we do what’s natural and that’s to first study what’s going on and then see if we can replicate it with enough enthusiasm.  Grand banners just look cool to fans so who cares if a Real Salt Lake banner doesn’t have the same intimidation factor as Borussia Dortmund’s yellow wall? It’s all about having a good time.  We can expect American fans to innovate and build something that is uniquely identifiable but influenced by other cultures.  It will happen, trust me.  People get bored of doing the same thing over and over.

These soccer “super fans” are no different than people who are avid gardeners or foodies.   What we lack in tradition, we more than make up for in enthusiasm.

Perception:

Never mind that no other sport is so linked to the working class. For these fans, rooting for an English soccer team is a highbrow pursuit and a mark of sophistication, like going to a Wes Anderson movie or owning a New Yorker subscription.

This point contradicts the rest of the article.  Seeing soccer as an intellectual pursuit isn’t a problem. Hey, it might even lead to that distinct attitude towards the game, Clegg wants us to have.  Anyway, his biggest complaint is that we’re taking English fan customs and attaching ‘intellectualism’ to it.  Okay, maybe that’s just lazy cultural stereotyping, but there are ways we can approach soccer intellectually though because soccer has had rippling effects throughout history and even societal changes .  English football might be rooted in the working-class, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same everywhere else.  Even in England, the size and scope of the Premier League worldwide means that soccer isn’t exclusively a working class game anymore.

FINAL THOUGHTS/BIG PICTURE

There’s no need to apologize for taking interest in something by adopting customs.  Clegg managed to point out the snobbery in a handful of New York bars (how’s that a surprise?), but he didn’t distinguish between influence and imitation.  Right now our soccer culture is influenced by Europe (and England more specifically), we’re not outright imitating them. We’re doing what Americans do.  We absorb multiple global elements and eventually we come up with something that is truly unique.

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