Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Clubs, Part Two: Throwball/Gridiron/Helmetball/American Football

First, let me just say that as an American who didn't grow up in a soccer-loving household, and DID grow up in the South, American football was almost pre-determined to be my first sporting love, and it was.

I was never really one for organized activities as a kid, much preferring to go play games with my friends in the street or the yard, but when I was younger my parents did insist that I do one organized sport per year. at 5 and 6, I played soccer (the last soccer uniform I ever wore was the shiny silver and black and collared shirt of the Collierville Animal Clinic... totally blowing away the green tshirt I wore the year before for the Hawks, by the way). At 7 and 8, I actually did Track and Field, the highly individual nature of the sport severely stretching the limits of what my parents were trying to do by telling me to play on a team, but I'm pretty sure my blue ribbon for the 100 meter dash and my red for the baseball throw are still in their attic. 9 through 11 were "full-kit" gridiron, and while I never did quite feel at home with Football players (and coaches), I was hooked on the game itself. I was from Florida, but living in Tennessee, and so I settled on a couple of Miami teams: the NFL Dolphins and the NCAA's University of Miami Hurricanes. Eventually, though, we moved back to Jacksonville and I grew into the "right" clubs for me, as I matured (or didn't, as the case may be).

Jacksonville Jaguars: I am now a proud Texan, and will raise up little Texan babies who will probably root for the Cowboys like their mom, and that's okay, I understand the intertwining of sports and community. But as for me, I am from Jacksonville, a city that has no particularly good reason to have one of 32 NFL teams, but somehow does, and I will not give them up. Like Tim Parks in the Italy essay in the very good book The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, the one thing I hold onto having moved away from the place I grew up is the sports team, because sports provides a disproportionate return on investment in terms of staying connected to one's place of origin. I prefer living in Texas, I will always live in Texas, and I rarely if ever call myself a Floridian when I can call myself a Texan, but it's okay, Jacksonville, because I still love our Jags. I still remember the day when I heard that our little town had landed a BIG TIME team. I was full of pride of place that has never quite left me. If the small-market Jaguars were ever to become someplace else's Jaguars, I doubt I'd ever watch another NFL game.

University of Florida Gators: My alma mater. Of course, don't ask me to SING the alma mater of my alma mater, because I don't know it. I've only been to one game in person, and I left at halftime because it was a blowout and no one would let me sit the hell down (hmm... perhaps I won't be joining the FC Dallas supporters' section anytime soon). Frankly, during college, I mainly associated the football team with missing classes, getting arrested, and keeping me from being able to drive ANYWHERE on homegame weekends because 60,000 alumni and fans flooded into Gainesville and clogged everything up. I often rooted AGAINST Florida when they were favorites, because I have always had a soft spot for underdogs. Hell, one time I specifically took all the french fries from the buffet at the dining hall by my dorm because I knew that was Steve Spurrier in line behind me and might have wanted some.

However, there were two cases where I always, always ALWAYS rooted for the Gators: Postseason bowl games against Yankees and the FSU game. To this day, I still chuckle when I imagine the cute little Big 10 and Big East schools thinking they know how to play College Football; actual results show this to be an unfounded prejudice, but college football fandom is not rooted in sanity, much less proper analysis. It is as severe a tribalism as exists in American sport.

This tribalism is exactly why I now root for the Gators EVERY game they play. It was a small incident, but it tapped into half-conscious, primeval social patterns that I was powerless to resist. I attended graduate school at a school whose sports teams are rivals of the Gators, and once, upon being asked by the person at the bookstore checkout counter where I did my undergraduate work, I answered, and the reply came, dripping with disgust, "Then why are you HERE?" I was taken aback, but quickly realized that when it came to this subject, there was only one tribe I would truly and completely belong to, and I embraced my destiny.

Texas Christian University Horned Frogs: Of course, one of the few ways one might join a new tribe is to marry into it. That is how I came to call the TCU Horned Frogs one of my teams. It is true I will never be as much a Horned Frog as I am a Gator, but at least they're both reptiles, and has a name ever so successfully combined whimsy and menace as "Horned Frog?" My wife is a (very) proud TCU alum, we got married on TCU's campus, and TCU is a spunky underdog that doesn't care what people think about its colors or mascot. As one of the schools thrown out with the bathwater when the old Southwest Conference collapsed in on itself, Frog fans take delight in the successes of the team, especially against the bigger schools that abandoned it. Those successes don't always come, but when they do they are sweet.

Monday, February 25, 2008

My Clubs, Part One: The sawcker

I am a firm believer that the one of the best ways to truly internalize universal lessons is to glean them from very particular narratives. I may have relatively little to add to the discussion on broader cultural trends and themes surrounding sports and why we love them, but I do see those trends and themes at work in my own experiences, which I offer as a few more data points for the subconscious statistical analysis we all do to come to our conclusions about such things. Without further ado, my list of clubs:

Who: FC Dallas (nee Dallas Burn)
Where: Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas. A beautiful stadium in a perfectly tidy suburb. Of course, there is no THERE there, but that will all change once the construction is done, at which point one will say that there certainly is a THERE there, though the THERE will still look and feel exactly like a large number of other faux-urban THERES that still require a car to get to them and to get from one chain retailer/restaurant concept to the next. Does that negate the THERE?
Why I Care: I live in Fort Worth. This is the team my father-in-law took us to until I had seen enough to realize that there was something great going on with this soccer thing. I have been told that one must attend an ice hockey game live to truly appreciate it, and for the uninitiated, that goes double for soccer. This is my home town club, and as long as they're around, they're my team, warts and all.
Why you might find them interesting: They are a microcosm of everything that is both promising and troubling about American soccer. On the one hand, they are actually profitable, have a lovely place to play, and have partnered with a local youth club to begin a player development academy. On the other, well, there are struggles. They struggle for attention in a market that is obsessed with the gridiron game, to the point where on any given weekend towards the end of the MLS season, local news outlets will devote more coverage to EACH of several High School gridiron games than to the Hoops' match(es) on the pitch of Pizza Hut Park; that's alright, though, because one or two of those gridiron games will ALSO have been played on the pitch of Pizza Hut Park. They have also re-branded the team, which many decry, but then, the original name grew out of a wave of ill-considered 90's EXTREME ATTITUDE, doomed from day one to fall into the realm of kitsch. Still, the fire-puking horse is pretty cool. Finally, the club is mired in mediocrity on the field, either a victim or beneficiary (depending on whom you ask) of the parity rules that govern MLS.

Who: Cardiff City
Where: Ninian Park, Cardiff Wales. An old ground full of character... and rust. I am so glad I got to go, but from a business standpoint, I can understand why the powers-that-be are so thrilled to be building a new stadium across the street.
Why I Care: Easy enough. Click here.
Why you might find them interesting: Some of this is also outlined in the link above, but they are an interesting case in European football. They are in Wales, which as far as FIFA is concerned is an independent country, but they play in the English system. English referees give red cards, but Welsh bureaucrats decide the fines and suspensions. Both countries' governing associations are rather uncomfortable with the situation, so along with the five other so-called Exile clubs, they have literally no chance to be entered into meaningful European tournaments. Even better, the current chairman is the man who ran Leeds United into the ground, but he is arguably an improvement over the last one, the man who set the wheel in motion for the end of Wimbledon FC. Finally, if you're into this sort of thing, some of the Bluebirds' fans have... a bit of a reputation.

Where: Guru Gobind Singh Stadium, Ludhiana, Punjab, India
Why I Care: My wife's dad was born in India, in the state of Punjab. He grew up in Phagwara, which is the base of operations for JCT FC. JCT is the only Punjabi team in the I-League, the newly reorganized, ostensibly professional league in India. I want to see Indian football develop, and I want to follow a team in the country and town where my soccer-loving father-in-law grew up, and which fosters a national team my children might aspire to play for should they ever become high-level players (and are somehow overlooked for the US National team(s), of course). Honestly though, if the team were based anywhere but Phagwara, even I might not have looked into it.
Why you might find them interesting: In a league where almost all the teams spring from the huge cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, or else come from the Portuguese-influenced coastal region of Goa, JCT hails from rural, mountainous Punjab near the Pakistani border, and more specifically Phagwara, a town of under 100,000 people, though they play their matches in nearby Ludhiana, which is a good bit larger, but still would flatter itself to claim 10% of the population of either Mumbai or Kolkata. In this sense, the Millmen (named for the JCT Textile company which sponsors/owns the team) are somewhat akin to the NFL's Green Bay Packers, playing in a tiny northern outpost that looks just a bit out of place in their league. Also, following an I-League team from the US becomes a unique test of one's psychological endurance and willingness to scour the Internet. Alas, I was unable to catch a broadcast from a p2p website before the season ended, with the Millmen coming in a very respectable third, led by Indian National team striker Sunil Chetri and BRAZILIAN Eduardo da Silva Escobar. How a Brazilian striker ends up plying his trade in Punjab is probably quite a story, and I'll be sure to write about it if I ever learn more.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

In Seattle

The wife and I are in Seattle for the weekend, staying downtown. Beautiful city, and so far seems more of a soccer town than I've seen before. So far in one day, spotted in the wild, in locations with no direct soccer connection:

-Guy in a Man U windbreaker at the airport.
-Gazzetto Dello Sport (12 days old) in a newsstand.
-Guy in a US Mens National Team jersey in Pikes Place Market.
-Guy in a Lampard jersey in a restaurant.

I haven't seen any Seattle Sounders paraphernalia, but maybe that will change if Goff heard right.

I do see the occasional Chivas truck-window sticker or Club America jersey back home in DFW, but I can't recall having come across four sightings like the above in one day. It's enough to make a guy envious, but then, that is one of the unique challenges of being a fan of my hometown club and frankly, I am a spiteful bastard of a homer, and seeing all these people in their soccer shirts and their NFL stadium that looks like an English stadium just made me that much happier that the Hoops ended Seattle's cute little US Open Cup run.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cardiff City? Texas?

I saw Dave's post at his very excellent blog, and it got me thinking that I might want to talk about how I chose my own club in the league of a foreign country to which I have precious few links (this subject has been discussed here, as well as elsewhere). After my father-in-law dragged me to enough FC Dallas games that I finally realized how wonderful soccer might be, I dived in.

I was entranced. Here was an entirely new universe of teams and concepts and competitions for me to discover. For instance, I was instantly enthralled by the concept that a club's very existence in the top-flight competition depended on a certain measure of success. It was a no-brainer to support my local club, FC Dallas, and they are without question my primary focus – when they're in season. But as we all know, one of the great wonders of soccer fandom is the fact soccer season never ends, it just migrates, and I had to follow the flock.

Being an English-speaking American, I had a natural affinity for the English system, and while I have always been pretty good at enjoying any given game just for the game itself, I knew I needed a team. I had, even before the soccer bug bit me, had a certain fondness for Arsenal, thanks to Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, but I have also always been a fan of the underdog and the outsider, so Wenger and his beautiful football were out, along with the rest of the Big Four.

Then I saw something: at the top of the Championship, in position to be automatically promoted if they could only just hold on, were Cardiff City. They are the ultimate outsiders in the English system, for Christ's sake, they're not even English! Here they were, threatening to bust back into the sacred shrine that is the English Top Flight. It got better: they had actually taken the FA Cup out England for the first and only time in 1927. Furthermore, the Bluebirds were led by a charismatic half-Indian striker, which tugged at the heartstrings of a guy married to a charismatic half-Indian woman, and my own family name (I won't commit any farther than the name, as family history is not my strong suit) originates in Wales. I could have picked Swansea or Wrexham, but while I love a good underdog, the English system is, to paraphrase the apocryphal cosmologist, underdogs all the way down. Anyway, I'd been to Wales on a backpacking trip after college and, to me, Cardiff was lovely, Swansea was drab and boring, and Wrexham was a train stop on the way to catch a boat to Ireland. It all added up.

I was set. My Welsh team would be in the Premiership in one year, maybe two, led by Michael Chopra, and on Fox Soccer Channel twice a month. Then the pain started coming.

A lousy run of form started that lasted the rest of the season. What had begun like a little kid sprinting off the start on a mile-race had finished, well, exactly like that same kid: gasping and wheezing across the finish line, the fast start only managing to ensure that there were a few hopeless cases bumbling along behind, frankly going no slower by the end, but without the benefit of that first sprint.

Then they sold Chopra. It was honestly too good a deal to pass up, and I would have done it too, but another season would have been nice. Then the creditors came calling, or, more accurately, suing. Then the stadium was delayed. Then there was no money for incoming transfers over the summer, and the club brought in two very old men to play striker in Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Robbie Fowler, though I admit to feeling a bit of selfish glee that Cardiff had got him instead of the other similarly-situated suitors (say that five times fast). Things were not going well, and I started eying the Premiership clubs again; maybe my father-in-law was onto something with this Manchester United thing. I was still a Cardiff fan, but now there was a sense of stubborn contrariness about it (ask my wife and you'll find it's perhaps not an uncommon feeling for me to express). For a sports fan, sunk costs are never forgotten, and those sorry bunch in Cardiff were a sorry bunch indeed, but they were my sorry bunch. Still, I can look back and see that my relationship with the club was under strain, and like so many people who pick a team instead of vice versa, there was a dark place in the back of my mind where a little voice reminded me that I could bail if I needed to.

Fortunately (from my point of view), it never came to that, and when it comes to English club football, I will live and die with Cardiff City. What caused the turn-around? It's simple, really: I experienced a game. My wife and I went to England for a family wedding, and there was a mid-week game in Cardiff (against Watford, in case you care). We got tickets online, but only after I called the ticket office, only to be so completely baffled by the thick Welsh accent on the other end of the line that I lied and said the connection was bad and hung up. We went to a pub and met up with some Cardiff fans I'd talked to on an Internet messageboard, and had an amazing time, and never had to buy a single pint for ourselves. We all (and by all I mean all, not just my wife and I and our new friends) marched down Sloper Road to Ninian Park in the foggy drizzle, and we all cheered for Cardiff. It was electric; I even got to experience what I'd been told about in the pub, that when an equalizer or go-ahead goal is scored, there is the briefest of silences, as the crowd reassures itself that the miracle really happened and inhales for what comes next: pure jubilation, pure happiness, the high that explains why fans of all teams put up with all the heartache.

Of course, the bastards from the London suburbs scored two and won the game and Cardiff was playing as badly to start the new season as it had to end the last, but none of that would ever again affect my connection to this team, this place, these people. I am forever a Cardiff City fan. Should the unlikely event occur of a meaningful game between the Hoops of FC Dallas and the Bluebirds, I will root for my hometown club, so I may never be the biggest Cardiff City fan, but I don't think I'm out place claiming that I am a true Cardiff City fan, and I am quite sure that I will be one for the rest of my days.

Obligatory First Post

Welcome to the new blog. I don't know it will go, if anywhere, but I felt like I had just barely enough to say to go ahead and create a forum for myself. Such is the vanity of teh interwebs age. Anyway, I will find my voice eventually, or else this blog will peter out, so if you're here, read.