Editor’s note: How does an American soccer mom find herself rooting for Guadaloupe’s national team in a suburban shopping mall? Laurie, author of outstanding blogs on the France national team and the L.A. Galaxy, explains the roots of her obsession.
The cantina is tiny, seating perhaps forty people, and is located along the back wall of the food court in a suburban shopping mall. On this night it is packed, and Spanish is the universal language. I am one of two females there, and the only gringa. I sit alone and ignore the curious stares and sidelong glances as I nibble at beans and rice and adequate chile verde and sip on a Corona. My focus, like everybody else’s, is on the flat-screen TV on the wall above the bar. The commentary coming from the speakers is in Spanish, which I don’t speak. It doesn’t matter, because I can’t hear it anyway.
We are watching a soccer game, a Gold Cup semi-final, Mexico vs. Guadaloupe. I am here because it was the only place I could find showing the game. I am the only person rooting for Guadaloupe. I root silently, to myself, but inside I am filled with support for this underdog French territory that waves the French flag and plays the Marseillaise — the French national anthem — before its games.
Why am I here? you ask.
Well, I’ll tell you: I blame my great-grandmother and Zinedine Zidane.
I am one-eighth French — my mother’s father’s mother came from France — and seven-eights Anglo-Saxon-Celt. When I was younger it was the French portion of myself that I embraced. I didn’t want my ancestors to be fair-haired, fair-skinned English speakers. I wanted interest. I wanted drama. I wanted to be French. So despite the fact that I myself was fair-haired, fair-skinned and English speaking, I wholeheartedly embraced the French part of myself. This led to five years of French classes and a few other quirks, such as the ability to tell a Degas from a Cézanne, a Monet from a Seurat, and the non-French impressionists (poseurs!!) from the real thing.
Along the way and completely separately, my passion for soccer was slowly developing. I kicked the ball around occasionally in college gym classes, completely oblivious to things like tactics and technical skills. I watched soccer on the rare occasions when it happened to be on TV. Later I would sign up for actual classes, and I started playing (badly but with passionate gusto) in a Women’s Indoor C league (because there was no D, E, F or Z league.) And I became that cliche of cliches, a soccer mom, watching as my son learned about corner kicks and goal kicks and one-touch passes and give-and-goes. The first time he cleared the ball with a perfect slide tackle, I thought my heart would explode with pride.
But for the longest time my heart was unattached. My love of soccer was free-roaming and equal opportunity. I learned that the continental European style of play, with its perfect passing and orientation towards long stretches of possession rather than long, hopeful blasts down the field — matched the game that was in my heart, but it didn’t matter to me who played it.
And then I saw Zidane play. Zidane, who was French. Zidane, who eventually came out of international retirement to lead France to the 2006 World Cup Final. (And we’re going to ignore that little headbutt thing that took him out of it.) When I saw him play, with his amazing skills and his personal presence and his way of controlling an entire field … Well, that was that. It was all over.
I credit (or blame) Zidane for the internal collision that led to a permanent, inseparable fusion of my previously unconnected passions. My French language skills, which had been languishing for years, were suddenly honed and sharpened on French soccer articles and videos. I can tell you, without stopping to think, the lineups for every France National Team game from the past year. I can debate the merits of bringing various former players back to the team. (And I can tell you which former players have been romantically linked by rumors to the coach’s much-younger significant other, thereby perhaps leading to their being former members of the team.) And this passion has outlasted Zidane, who retired last year.
Tiny Guadaloupe lost the game that night after putting up a valiant fight. Their goalkeeper made save after save after save, but eventually there was that one perfect strike, just out of his reach, that he could not stop — a long, high, arcing blast into the upper-right corner of the net. I smiled as the bar erupted with joy. This wasn’t my actual France team, after all, and David can take down only so many Goliaths. My French boys from Guadaloupe left the tournament with heads held high, content in the knowledge that for one brief period of time they’d grabbed the world’s attention.
I tracked down my husband and younger son in another area of the mall. Neither is a soccer fan, but they’re happy to accompany me on my quests. My husband, cheerful enabler of my addiction, drove us home.
Yes, it’s an unusual obsession, particularly for an American woman. But it’s beyond my control, and it makes me happy, and nobody gets hurt.
Can you say the same about your addiction?