Editor’s note: When Max began contributing to pitchinvasion.net, I was curious about why he wanted to write on football fan culture – as a patronising Englishman, I’m always curious about Americans that love soccer – and asked him to write about how he fell for the game. I must thank Max for overcoming his fear of sounding like Nick Hornby and explaining himself eloquently below.
Passion is the proper word to describe it. You love other sports and other teams, but you’re born to them and have baby pictures at the ballpark or ancient team-logo footy pajamas. The fandom itself is inherited and constant, starting on Dad’s lap on Saturday afternoons and providing background noise for the rest of your life. It doesn’t suddenly attack you when you’re older, less impressionable but more needy for big things, swallowing the last defenseless bits of your higher brain function. Only a passion strikes that way.
You read an article somewhere, or catch a TV clip, or you have a friend who’s over the deep end already and the badgering starts to sink in. You end up at a game and it’s a revelation (not of the sport itself, which remains artistic but incomprehensible, but of everything surrounding it). Songs and drums and flags and beer you’ve all seen before, but not in combination and not ever-present and ever-louder. At home there’s a decent haul of ticket stubs from big games, but no one else cared quite like this, and when a volley rockets past the far post it’s V-J Day in Times Square.
There’s screaming and bouncing and wonderfully foul language in unheard-of quantities. The roar you somewhat recognize from other times, but this one is different: deafening and less resembling pleasure than barely-controlled hysteria. It even has its own weather system: smoke-bomb cumulus, bass-drum thunder, and a sudden amber downpour of what you can only hope is Bud Light. You know the roar always dies down now, settling into a satisfied buzz for the next at-bat or the ensuing kickoff. But the moment is gone and the goal a memory and you’re screaming louder, bouncing higher, dodging a sea of flags. Somewhere in those moments it hits you that you’ve missed this, even though you’ve never set foot here before.
Some Americans may not have come to soccer this way, but I think many have, and the game certainly took me all at once. I was fortunate enough to be unemployed, German-speaking, and traveling in Europe after graduation, a directionless summer ripe to be eaten alive by the World Cup. The scale and spectacle of the whole thing interested me, as did Gatorade commercials promising American glory. There were stages: intrigued but leaving Berlin on the evening before the tournament; amazed in Prague when Germans packed the Old Town Square for the opening match on an outdoor screen (a crowd dwarfed by the English who showed up the next day); and finally utterly hopeless, leaping screaming and ecstatic out of my chair when Oliver Neuville scored his 91st minute winner against Poland. My friends looked on in horror while I cheered Germany: the chair was in a crowded beachside bar in Tel Aviv.
By the end there was an expensive detour back to Berlin, the urge to watch with the crowds when my new Teutonic heroes played Ecuador being too great to suppress. Thankfully, when direction finally kicked in and took me briefly to DC, there was a whole new band of hopeless soccer lunatics to join. I’d been primed after so many weeks of looking in at the madness yet never quite being there; when I finally heard the roar from its center, it sealed the addiction. “Welcome to the passion,” one Barra told me. Gladly.
The actual love of the game came later, and is still largely on its way. Soccer is undeniably beautiful, but I’m still sorely unable to intelligently judge players or tactics the way I like to talk about Schilling challenging in the strike zone. But the game is a passion, and for the convert, the chief value is in those delirious moments in the stands, knowing he never has to miss this again.