The DEFEND Cleveland Show

Discovering Soccer

discovering soccer

 

Around 2:30 AM on a Saturday night in Athens, Ohio, tucked away in a dingy dorm room reeking of man sweat, weed, booze, and Hungry Howie’s pizza early on in the fall of my Freshman year (2005) of college, fresh off a night of unsuccessfully trying to get into parties we were not invited to, I was reintroduced to the glorious world of soccer.  Three college sophomores occupied a futon staring intently at the only source of light currently in the room, a small television, all three holding what my mother her whole life would call a “paddle”(No she did not hit me with it, though she probably wanted to at times), but which I found out early in my grade school career was appropriately termed a “controller”.  I recall being surprised to not see the familiar shapes of digital players suited up in pads and helmets coated in the colors of the affiliated professional or college football team.  It seemed Madden and NCAA Football were all that people played in school.  Most of the males on my floor spent their Friday and Saturday afternoons pounding both beers and buttons for a few hours “pre gaming” in two senses before a night of partying.   In this case though the pixels on the screen were playing soccer.  My friends were playing FIFA, EA’s soccer franchise that is globally one of the most successful video game franchises ever.  It ranks up there with other renowned franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Pokemon, The Sims, Final Fantasy, Tetris, Call of Duty, and Mario in terms of copies sold.  Bored of merely watching and despite having no clue how to play, I asked if I could join in.  Much to the chagrin of my partner in game, I sucked something terrible, but it didn’t matter.  Soon enough I’d be hooked.

I’d be lying if I told you the Me of 2005 didn’t carry preconceived notions about soccer at this point, all of which were negative. Mainly I thought that it was a shit sport and that it was boring to watch.  I knew there wasn’t enough scoring and all the players were sissy ninnies who flopped way too much.1 I’m not even sure where these opinions originated from.  I loved playing soccer as a youth, but it became a choice early on in the fall between football and soccer.  Being raised in a culture that glorifies football to no end, I made the obvious decision and opted to play what now has maybe replaced Jesus as the biggest thing around on Sunday in this country.  At a generous 5’6 I was not born to play a sport of 300 pound men, but I did anyways.

Fast forward to the fall of my sophomore year.  It’s around 9:00 AM on a Sunday.  80% of my dormitory floor is probably in an alcohol amplified slumber, my roommate included.  I’m huddled in the corner of my tiny dorm room at my computer with big clunky headphones on watching some blurry stream on the worst piece of freeware ever developed, SOPcast.2  This is the first real season I’ve been watching my randomly selected team of choice, Tottenham Hotspur.  I became the soccer version of a Spurs fan on a fateful day following Italy triumphing over France in the 2006 World Cup.  I performed an iteration of “eenie meenie miney mo” on the top ten teams of the Premier League Table from the previous season and landed on “Tottenham Hotspur” with my final “mo”.

In addition to the SOPcast, which is streaming the Tottenham-Chelsea match, I also have a live game chat from the Spurs Community message board open so I don’t feel as isolated in my enjoyment.  Much like Cleveland fans, most Spurs fans inherited their fandom along with their genes.  I feel slightly out of place.  Almost embarrassed that I like this team so much and yet have only watched them play something like fifteen matches. We’ve had a mediocre season up to this point, exciting, but not consistent.  Before every match the message board fills up  with posts like “I know it’s crazy, but I think we’re going to win 2-0”.  Spurs haven’t beaten Chelsea in 16 years.  It doesn’t take long for these people to change their tune as Chelsea3 look threatening early and the home crowd began to seem a little nervy.  Late in the 1st half Claude Makelele, the epitome of a defensive midfielder, decides to score one of the only two goals that make up his 144 Chelsea Premier League appearances.  An absolute rocket of a volley of a clearance that served to only vindicate that aforementioned pessimism shared by Tottenham supporters that Cleveland fans have an unfortunate familiarity with.

In the early second half, after a Michael Dawson equalizer off a set piece, Robbie Keane, (Who I am in love with at this time) pulls off some nifty dribbling down the left wing to beat the right back, Khalid Boulahrouz, and put in a cross that caroms off a Chelsea defender right into the path of shortest man on the pitch, Aaron Lennon, who takes a brilliantly calm touch and puts a shot past both John Terry and Henrique Hilario.  White Hart Lane explodes.  I start running around my room screaming in untempered jubilation waking up almost my entire wing of the dormitory to what surely to an outsider sounds something akin to someone being murdered.  The announcer is reminding any Tottenham supporter who hasn’t completely lost their mind to a state of pure bliss that it has been 16 years since the Spurs have won against their London rivals.  “Will this finally be Tottenham’s day?” he asks.  It was.

If I had to finger one moment as to when I became a true soccer fan I’d like to think it was this one.  Despite surely procuring the disdain of my floor for the rest of the school year, I had given myself completely over to the soccer gods at that moment and gone through the equivalent of a footy rapture.  The exhilaration of winning goals in soccer is not often matched by other sports for me.  Few sports occurrences can ignite that inner sports fanatic in me the way a crucial goal can.

Despite their enjoyment of FIFA, none of my roommates shared my desire to wake up early on a Sunday to watch soccer.  They would however be sure to be awake and hungover a few hours later though in order to catch the Browns game.  They often mocked this ritual of mine, the following year going as far as to completely wrap my car in yellow warning tape in a flash of drunken inspiration in order to prevent me from getting up early and driving to Columbus to watch Tottenham in the Carling Cup finals at an actual soccer bar.  They kindly borrowed my Polaroid camera and proudly proclaimed their guilt as they left a picture of them on my freshly wrapped car.  Luckily it didn’t stop me from getting to see Tottenham beat Chelsea 2-1 in extra time and take home the cup.

Its March 3rd, 2013, almost six years later. I enter the Old Angle over on West 25th in Ohio City and it is packed with Tottenham Hotspur fans. The Arsenal/Tottenham derby is about to begin.  This rivalry is kind of a Yankees/Mets type deal where Arsenal are the Yankees and Spurs are the Mets.  It is a local rivalry in North London, and Arsenal have had a lot more success than the Spurs since the advent of the modern Premier League; giving it a big brother/little brother feel. The teams though are beginning to look evenly matched as Arsenal has lost its spot as an annual title contender and the Spurs are threatening to finish above Arsenal in the EPL for the first time since 1995.

It is crazy to me that the Old Angle, a bar in Cleveland, OH, can be full of Spurs fans, but I couldn’t be happier about it.  Daniel Levy, Tottenham’s Joe Banner-esque chairman, made a very intelligent move to acquire Clint Dempsey at a fairly cheap price from Fulham last summer.  Despite Dempsey frustrating me endlessly with his play, at times he clearly has helped bring a larger contingent of American fans to support Tottenham, which is one small step towards the Spurs competing with the biggest clubs in the Premier League financially.

There is a pot luck breakfast brought by fans and the bar is open rather early.  My Arsenal loving friends show up to watch the game with me, the only two Arsenal supporters in the place.  I enjoy watching the Spurs score two early goals on their way to a 2-1 victory.  The highlight of the event being me missing a high five to a complete stranger. I am an insanely accurate high fiver and deeply embarrassed over my misfire. I even felt the need to rationalize the miss to the stranger by blaming my inaccuracy on imbibing too much beer despite only having had one drink.  Spurs songs ring loudly in the bar around me and my two Arsenal supporting friends are yelling about their team utilizing a high defensive line, which was at fault for both goals, against a much faster team.  I hold my glass under their crying eyes and drink up their savory Arsenal tears. For now it is good to be a Spurs fan.  We’re ahead of the Gooners4  in the table and have a good chance of securing a coveted Champions League spot.  I leave the bar elated.5

FIFA was my gateway drug into the world of European soccer. I don’t think I’m alone in this. The game of FIFA can probably garner more credit than the sport itself for allowing me to mention the names Kaka, Ronaldinho, Messi, and Rooney to strangers without receiving blank stares in return. In a culture where the video game industry is capable of bringing in 58 billion dollars annually the rising popularity of the FIFA franchise in the United States has raised the collective awareness of what was once a population that was somewhat clueless when it came to the sport overseas, me included. Unless of course the name David Beckham was involved. This boost can’t be attributed solely to FIFA. ESPN purchasing the rights to cover the World Cup along with expanded coverage of the Premier League and MLS by different networks has helped raised the sports profile in this country as well. FIFA acts as a great primer to becoming a fan of the real deal. It’s not merely a coincidence that the NFL is the biggest sport in America and that Madden is the biggest sports video game franchise here as well.6 They both help grow the other’s audience and market each other’s product.

Soccer is on the verge of taking off here in the States.  The signs are everywhere.  From Dustin Fox’s confusion over to why people would be tweeting about a soccer game during an NBA Finals game to conversations about the Confederations Cup at the local coffee shop.  Even in the past year the amount of random conversations I’ve had about soccer has increased tenfold.  I’m not here to sell the game to people who aren’t interested in becoming a fan.  All forms of entertainment will always have their haters. What I am here to say though is that if your interest has been drawn to the “other” footballing world then I’m glad to be there alongside you. It’s absolutely thrilling to have more people to celebrate this wonderful game with.

 

-Joe Mastrantoni

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  1. The flopping part is the only thing I still find true []
  2. The only time I’ve ever gotten a virus on my computer is from this program.  In my desperation to watch a Tottenham match I desperately downloaded something that I was at the time even 60% sure was a virus, but the false promise of being able to see my match after exhausting the rest of my options was too alluring. []
  3. one of the best tackles I’ve ever seen live was performed this match by Ledley King on a clean through young Arjen Robben []
  4. Gooners is a pejorative nickname for Arsenal which is a play on their real nick name The Gunners []
  5. Arsenal of course would pull ahead of the Spurs in the table at the end of the season and pip the Spurs for 4th place, barely []
  6. Though that might change soon, the Madden half at least []

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Posted by on Jun 23 2013. Filed under Featured, Hands Down, Man's Down. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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