Friday, 11 June 2010

BORN IN THE USA, JUST BECOME BRIT: MY WORLD CUP DILEMMA

I was born an American. I call football soccer. Every time I get told, condescendingly, about 'the sport you call soccer' I am mighty tired of saying, 'no it's the sport YOU call soccer.' I want to whip out my copy of the BBC Soccer Annual, edited by my ex-boss Peter Dimmock and say, 'do you think the BBC is American?' The same people who called rugby 'rugger' and Brian Johnson 'Johnners' called Association Football 'soccer' and thought they were being very clever. Because logically, it should have been 'Asser' which would have been a hell of a lot more appropriate. Then again, if Mean Joe Greene had been English, his nickname would have been Greeners.

The 'soccer' bludgeon has nothing to do with reality, and lots to do with class and inverse snobbery. In the wake of Nick Hornsby's football nostalgia boom, which followed by a few years the similar one for baseball in America (the one during which fantasy sport was invented), there arose a sort of universal dream world, when all these middle class boys who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s calling football soccer reinvented themselves as 'classless' cool Brittania. Using that middle-class terminology, which implied that soccer was somehow less legitimate than rugger or cricket, became declasse in the extreme. It was also a way, in the face of a football Premier League adapting NFL-style formats (all-seater stadia, squad numbers, Monday Night Football et al.) that had made televised gridiron so popular in Britain during soccer's Heysel and Hillsborough dog days, of reclaiming soccer's own intrinsic entertainment value.

Even understanding this, I want to ask why I never hear Brits talk condescendingly to Australians about 'the sport you call soccer', even though their national team is actually called 'The Socceroos' and has never outperformed the US. And I'm still waiting for the first English reporter to ask Fabio Capello about 'the sport you Italians call 'kick'.

For 33 years I have lived in England and suffered the assaults of soccer zombies and their 'beautiful game'. When I arrived in Britain in 1977 no one called soccer 'the beautiful game'. It was the ugly game you took your life into your hands to watch in person. Some 2,000 fans have died watching soccer matches since 1946, which says something about the sophistication of its fan base.

Soccer zombies may claim it as the world's favourite sport, but there are huge swaths of the planet where it is not, including the world's three largest countries and the majority of the former British Empire. In 1994, I was producing the host coverage of the World Cup from Chicago. A radio 5 reporter interviewed me, and asked how the groundskeeper could cut the grass in circles on the pitch at Soldier Field. 'It's easy,' I said, 'first he cuts clockwise, then he cuts counter (or anti) clockwise'. 'But won't the players get dizzy?' he asked. 'Only the ones more than thirty feet tall,' I replied. 'But isn't this just symptomatic of giving the World Cup to the one country in the world where football isn't the number one sport?' 'Son,' I said, even though he was probably my age, 'have you never been to Ireland?' He looked puzzled and I went on to list the countries where football wasn't the favourite sport. Then I stopped. 'This won't make air, will it?'

Say football in Dublin and you will be assumed to mean Gaelic. In Australia, Aussie Rules. In New Zealand, rugby. In Canada, American (or Canadian) football. In such tiny and insignificant countries as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka cricket dominates totally. In Japan it is sumo or baseball. Soccer is not the number one sport in Venezuela, Cuba, Indonesia, Israel, Phillipines, Lithuania, Taiwan, or the Dominican Republic. Even in Greece basketball makes a strong case. China is still up for grabs, but basketball is probably number two behind ping pong. And there are any number of countries in the near and far east where football makes no impact at all. So shut up about the 'sport you Yanks call soccer', OK?

If these arguments sound well-rehearsed, it's because they damn-well are; I've been practising them for years in pubs and on TV. But now, I've got the chance to change my tune.

Last week I became a British citizen. Bad timing, for sure. Only ten days after I sang 'God Save The Queen' at the end of my naturalisation ceremony, I have to decide how to define myself when the USA and England go head to head in the 2010 World Cup finals. For the first time, according to my fellow dads in my son's schoolyard, I have to choose sides.

Who will I support? It's odd to even ask such a question after enduring a British election campaign in which all parties rushed to demonise immigrants like me. I could start with Norman Tebbit's 'cricket test' of Britishness—if one supported the West Indies, for example, against England at cricket, one couldn't be British. But of course the illogic of being 'British' depending on supporting England has been better defined by the BNP leader Nick Griffin, who noted the difference between the 'indigenous' peoples of Britain, and immigrant outsiders like me. According to the BNP, I couldn't support England even if I wanted to. They'd prefer I take the easy way out, like a Scot, and root for Anybody But England. And that's only because the Picts don't get their own soccer 'nation'.

The reality is that, absent birth's blind loyalty, for the past 33 years, I have enjoyed the privilege of shifting allegiance the way American 'franchises' switch cities. I can pick and choose the national side I feel more comfortable with. In rugby I support England only against those countries, namely Wales and New Zealand, to whom the contest appears to mean too much, be linked too overwhelmingly to their national sense of self, to allow no bounds beyond which they cannot go in order to win. Those countries and Australia, whom I find almost impossible to support in any circumstances, since the above criterion appears to apply to them in ALL sports! Thus in football, I have supported England against Argentina, Germany, Italy, and so on. I faced a real dilemma in the old England-Scotland Home International match at Wembley, when Scottish supporters laid siege to the entire city of London, killed themselves celebrating by diving into empty fountains, and generally terrorised me into realising the game meant far too much to them. Despite America's fondness for the Braveheart image of Scotland, reality turns out to be far more like Mel Gibson's drunken rants to California highway patrolmen than his stirring speeches as William Wallace.

Obviously, my identity as a Yank isn't caught up in beating England at football the way a Scot's Scottishness is. And as an expat I hope I am not caught up in the narrowness of the stereotypically (but not totally unjustifiable) American world-view, nor the assumption of America as the best in the world at everything, including, and sometimes especially, war. I say this out of self-interest, because if England win I will have to bear for the foreseeable future the gloating of every English supporter I know, and a great many I don't know from Adam Ant. But seriously, assuming I can assume the mantle, can England actually offer anything positive to draw me in? Apart, of course, from being the only one of the home nations actually in South Africa.

Like most of my countrymen, but unlike the middle-aged guys in suits who run FIFA, I seem immune to the dubious charms of David Beckham (or his cobra-faced missus). I do love following the progress of John Terry through his teammates' Wags. I do appreciate that English football songs are so simple even the players can remember the words, all as easy as 'God Save The Queen'. Though I've always found it odd that 'When The Saints Go Marching In' and 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' are both actually American.

But here is a countrywhich, based on one World Cup win, and that playing at home and on a dubious disputed goal, assumes they should be automatic favourites when every tournament rolls around. Their press hypes them up unbelievably, while tearing them down at every opportunity. My countryman Brendan Hunt, in his blog The Unlikely Fan (you can link to the whole piece here), identified for Yanks a domestic sports team equivalent to each World Cup country. England, living on the unlikely glory of the 60s, incapable of surviving the pressure of expectation and inevitably succumbing to the weight of both history and reality, turn out to be the gridiron New York Jets.

If you've followed me presenting the NFL, on Five or the BBC, you'll know I hold the Jets and the New York media in a special place of ignominy. So Brendan has made my choice easier, even if he does equate the US, equally accurately, to the NFL's Houston Texans, a bland team forever expected to do surprisingly well, but never getting over the hump.

Despite being American, I do prefer an underdog. I chose life as an expat at least in part to escape flag waving; I shudder as cars stagger past me with St George cross flags flapping in the cold wet summer breeze. Having chosen to live here, and become British, I am less impressed by the passions of those lucky enough to have been born in the country they love so much. So, in the end, it won't be a surprise after only a week to find myself abandoning my new identity and enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune once again as a Yank. The prospect of being outnumbered in the pub Saturday, brings to mind a strange inversion of the image of Michael Caine drinking with the Zulus. I shudder now, and apologise in advance. I may be British now, but that only validates my position in the (almost) Anyone But England camp.

Bring back the glories of Belo Horizonte, 29 June 1950! USA 1 England 0. Like my Wesleyan University football team, who are unbeaten against Michigan based on one win in the 1880s, they haven't beaten us (in a World Cup) yet.

It maybe hard for me, but pity my son. Born in London, raised in England, with an American father and a Kiwi mother and three passports of his own. Please don't ask him to make a choice; he's only six. And one of his godfathers is head of the US bid committee. But he has had one piece of good luck. Stuck with passports from three potential World Cup losers, he's drawn Holland in his class pool. Though now he's got to explain to his teacher, who is English, that there is no country called Holland in the World Cup.

3 comments :

Bob Howes said...

Dodge the issue and cheer for the "Socceroos".

They need all the help they can get!

Ciaran said...

Really enjoyed the read Mike.

Totally true on lazy USA 'saccer jokes' that everyone is meant to find hysterical. I really dislike the idea that everyone is meant to have a herd opinion on everything (though we will patronisingly criticise others for this same quality). In a similar vein history of World Cup tv programmes are ruined by talking heads where they show some z-lister a clip two seconds before they turn on the camera to remind them of 98 World Cup and then they say "And everyone knew Michael Owen was great...what was he doing on the bench?" - when obviously this wasn't the case.

Interestingly, one of my friends told me ESPN coverage is better than UK's because they have actually provide analysis rather than cut to enthusiastic idiots roaming the country asking yet another local what it means for the World Cup to be in South Africa.

And agree totally about the flag thing. Used to think it was one of the things that made England quietly superior that we didn't indulge in flag waving of US or Australia - like not having to tag events The Open or FA Cup with our country's name.

Really hope you get a gig for American Football this year, even if its just the Five Live Sport Extra commentary.

James Dunn said...

Fantastic article by Brendon Hunt. Spot on re. Germany - Dallas Cowboys, Greece - Tampa Bay, Portugal - Chargers, Uruguay - Notre Dame.
Very impressive knowledge and humour.