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.

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