The Evangelical Church of Soccer

We are all converts to and evangelists for the Church of Soccer. We trust that a day is coming soon where soccer will stop wandering in the desert and the Gods of Sport will allow it to take its rightful place as not only the world’s game but also America’s game. We have all taken different paths to the Church, whether through youth soccer, a world cup, a local team, or the Premier League. We have all accepted the responsibility of advancing “The Project.” (Credit to Simon for giving it a name.)

You may have accepted The Project knowingly or unknowingly but believe me, you’re most likely engaged in it. For the uninitiated, The Project is the task of growing the sport inside America, whether through making people fans of US Soccer (USMNT or USWNT), MLS or local teams, or English Soccer (preferably all three). If you’re only doing one of these, then it’s your duty to keep doing more.

It’s a very unique assignment. NFL fans don’t have to convince people to like football and basketball fans don’t have to convince people to watch the NCAA tournament. People have generally already decided their main sport and even whether they prefer the college or professional version. Soccer though is about converting people. Soccer is growing.

Soccer is already the second favorite sport among young adults and average attendance for MLS games surpassed both the NHL and NBA 4 years ago (we know they play more games). The world cup was huge. People who didn’t care about soccer did for a couple weeks. We showed up to watch the games on the big screen in our city’s main square by the thousands. Those who couldn’t skip work streamed on their desktops. For a moment we cared about the national team like we care about the Super Bowl or the NCAA tournament final and even more because we were all united behind the same team (hopefully we get a repeat of this behavior for the Women’s team in Canada). The national team is our team and we’ll be damned if some fancy, communist Europeans are gonna beat the honest, hardworking Americans (you should probably ignore that half of our team doesn’t speak English so good.)

Rendering of Indy Eleven's new stadium

Rendering of Indy Eleven's new stadium

In my personal effort to advance the project, I recently took my parents to an Indy Eleven game. My dad has watched a couple of Arsenal games when I’ve spent the weekend at their house. He’ll even text me when he stumbles across a match on NBC. Indy Eleven is entering only its second season, but it already has a strong, supportive fanbase that regularly sells the stadium out, and they just got approval for a new stadium. It’s their local club so I suggested we go watch their season home opener against New York Cosmos.

At this point, I remembered the terror of every soccer fan who takes new initiates to a game: What if it ends a nil-nil draw? Even though there was an average of 2.8 goals scored per game in the NASL (this number is pretty solid for most leagues), I was still worried that my parents would be turned off forever by a boring draw (it did end up being a 1-1 draw). All the standard tropes against soccer would be dragged out. “Nothing happened. They just kicked it back and forth. Why did we just waste two hours of our lives?” But one must soldier one and hope the Gods of Sport smile on you that day.

We arrived at the game and honestly the place was buzzing. One of the best parts of soccer is the community. The first person I saw as I was randomly walking through the tailgate area was an Arsenal fan from Cincinnati. It’s very common for random people to talk shit to me simply for wearing my Arsenal jacket and somehow that’s cool. The next day I ran into an Arsenal fan at the checkout of the grocery store (he immediately told me he’d been a fan for 12 years, see my article on plasticity and narratives). Its interesting that even though we were at an Indy Eleven game, Liverpool, United and Chelsea flags were flying and about a third of the jerseys were of European teams.

Back to the game, the Brickyard Battalion (the home end) was chanting the whole time, singing songs, jeering the ref. While some sports teams have chants that they do, I don’t think anything matches the responsiveness and passion of soccer chants. FYI my favorite chant is for Freddie Ljungberg here.

The fans behind me were talking about the most famous player on the pitch (no, not Kleberson). Raul plays for the Cosmos as a last stop at the end of his stellar career. We were regaled by these fans with tales of how he was Brazilian (he’s Spanish), won the world cup (he hasn’t) in ’98 (France won in ’98 and Brazil won in ’94 & ’02). Although he never won the world cup (Spain won in the next WC after he retired from the national team), he has won 3 Champions Leagues, 6 La Liga titles, twice La Liga Top Scorer, Runner-up in the Ballon d’Or, and is Real Madrid’s all-time top goalscorer (Ronaldo needs 22 more) and most appearances.

Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul

Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, Raul

As an aside, one of the huge challenges of becoming a soccer fan is the depth of knowledge that is required to speak relatively intelligently of the even the modern game. I don’t hold it against those guys for being wrong but it did take a lot for me not to correct them. There are some many teams, club and national, tournaments, and so much history that it’s almost an impossible task to learn all of it. Historic rivalries, famous games, and its most recent stars almost never happened for us; they have little resonance. Clockwork Orange, Liverpool of the 70’s and 80’s, and Milan under Sacchi are just names to us just as are the stars of the last two decades, Zidane, Bergkamp, Ronaldo (the original), Ronaldinho, Figo, Baggio, Gullit, Cannavaro, Beckham, Henry. Most American soccer fans only know Zidane for that headbutt on Materazzi. We either just missed them or saw them in their late 30’s in the MLS or lesser clubs. We’re even further removed from Cruyff, Maradonna, Platini, Van Basten, Beckenbauer, and Keegan, players who our fathers would have idolized.

This does make it tough to be converted and to be honest I’ve never been guy for figures (although I do love history). Learning the catechisms and doctrine of a new religion is often the toughest part. I have a terrible memory for goals. Facts and figures are honestly not important. Tactics are definitely muddier in football than football. It is how we feel about soccer that is important; the underlying faith.

Raul did score a goal that night from a scrappy, poorly cleared corner. The other goal resulted from the Cosmos’s keeper thinking that he was Manuel Neuer as he came out of the box to head a ball clear. It went right to an Indy Eleven player who chipped the keeper from 30 yards. Both goals were a bit silly. Passing wasn’t a main feature of the 11’s offense, as one of their forwards would get the ball and charge for goal. Even though the most beautiful soccer wasn’t to be had, on the whole it was a success. My parents want to go back and take the whole family. Maybe it’s only for my benefit but I won’t complain.

The Project is working. More and more people stop me on the street and ask the score, or say “Go Gunners!”, or give me some banter. On Saturday I was walking down the street and a random person, undoubtedly a disgruntled Spurs fan, shouted at me, “Go back to South London!” (I would point out when we moved north, Spurs weren’t even in London but Middlesex.) At this point it almost feels like knowing a secret handshake. The project extends to us as soccer fans. For me it was years of watching the games on my TV at home and this season I made an effort be at the bar with the other supporters. I am too often guilty of not supporting the local teams as much as I should. I plan on catching as many Cincinnati Saints games as I can this season (I saw two last year as well as a Dutch Lions game) and plan on bringing friends too.