My favourite soccer podcast, The Anfield Wrap, likes to open the show with reader questions that may or may not have something to with the sport. Last weekend’s show opened with a pretty cool question: “If you were not a Liverpool fan and had to pick to be a local fan of a team (anywhere in the world) which team would you pick?”
The answers were solid. West Bromwich Albion earned a vote, apparently thanks to the high quality of the food they sell at the ground; Palmeiras, at least partly on the strength of the city; the Los Angeles Galaxy, so you could continue to watch Steven Gerrard play football, and assumedly rip the American league to shreds.
What a great question. I thought about it myself and ended up picking an American team as well, because… well, because I like it in America. I’m married to an American too. Yes, yes, this is a completely hypothetical situation but one must have limits. If we cave to complete fantasy then I’d want to buy a team and install myself as captain on the field in a Heaven Can Wait situation. Alternatively, I could buy Manchester United and run them into the ground on purpose in an inverted Heaven Can Wait situation. Warren Beatty comedies don’t usually feature so heavily in my reasoning but it seemed apposite.
I pick the Portland Timbers. First, you get to live in Portland, which despite the hipster culture we fled in Austin and so wonderfully skewered in Portlandia, would be a pretty cool place to live. Secondly, you get to be a Portland Timber fan.
If you’ve never seen the “Timbers Army” in action, well… here’s a video clip of the Timbers Army in action.
If you prefer your fan culture infused with a rigorous sense of nationalism, then watch THIS video:
It’s crazy. Timbers fans act as if they’re at a real football match. Major League Soccer games aren’t usually like that. The best MLS stadium I’ve visited so far is Toyota Park, home to the Chicago Fire. I’m not sure anyone would hold it up as the best example of fan culture in US soccer, but it’s certainly not the worst. Let’s take it as our midrange. The atmosphere at a Fire game is profoundly weird, at least for a European visiting. I’ve seen the same pattern at other soccer matches in the US, across varying professional and amateur levels. You have one group occupying a chunk of the ground behind one of the goals that screams and shouts and generally makes itself conspicuous in the manner of a toddler desperately trying to impress his older brother. Everyone else mostly just… hangs out.
Of course, you can go to matches all over the world where one group is very loud and everyone else gets into it at certain points of the match. It’s often very different in the US, though. The self-appointed “ultra” style groups, in addition to banging drums and generally making noise, tend to try and get in the faces of opposing players in a way I wouldn’t consider particularly dignified. It’s also a rather obvious thing when people are making noise for the sake of making noise. The whole thing feels like an imitation of culture rather than any kind of incubator or accelerant of culture, as I believe these groups see themselves. It’s all a bit depressing.
Enter the Timber Army with their scarves and their yelling and their waiting lists for season tickets. They’re outliers in American sport, never mind American soccer. Of all the American sports, I like College Football the most. It’s the sport where Americans let their hair down and admit they care without taking the extra four or five steps into acting like childish idiots. As with so many things in America, the line between genuine practice and emulation of the Hollywood ideal is a thin one that nobody seems to have any clue how to navigate. Painted faces have given way to elaborate costumes. If you’re a dedicated Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, what exactly is showing up to the NFL Draft dressed like a post-apocalyptic pirate marauder doing for your team? How is it expressing your fandom in any way that sitting there, tightly clenching the insides of your fist and hoping the team picks the right quarterback (they didn’t, incidentally), does not? Much like Tim Tebow’s loud and repetitive declarations of commitment to his religion, it’s all for show, much more to do with onlooking cameras than any kind of deep rooted commitment to an abstract concept.
That’s fine, I suppose. It’s always been hard for me though, coming from a completely different culture. Where I come from, sport isn’t entertainment. It’s not really meant to be so. Sure, you spend money on it and you spend your free time on it and, yes, you walk around as an adult sometimes wearing a replica jersey. Okay, okay: the whole enterprise is inherently silly. Within that silliness however, there is something vital and something important. When I watch Liverpool play football, I rarely enjoy it in any meaningful sense of that word. I endure it. I enjoy the aftermath, or I pretend the sport doesn’t exist for a week or two. Either way.
I see those emotions in college football fans, and I see them in the Portland Timbers fans. Of course, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I used to hold baseball in utter disdain for the manner in which people interacted with the game in person, but now I see that comparing attendance at a baseball game and attendance at a soccer match is like putting a centerfielder in at right back and expecting him to do a job for you. Baseball is cerebral, it’s laid back, it’s something you can take your children to in the full knowledge you wont’ stay for the whole game. They’ll see the field, hear the crack of the bat, maybe get a hot dog or something else you probably shouldn’t let them eat too much.
Maybe when my son is older I’ll introduce him to both sports simultaneously. We’ll go to see baseball teams and laugh, relax and generally bond. The next morning we’ll get up early to watch Liverpool and sit there in tense silence. Even better, I can assume my right as a dad and pontificate about the team being a disaster while my son admonishes me for not being optimistic enough. I look forward to that.
I wonder, though, if I’ll want him to watch soccer at all. I can make my comments about Toyota Park all I like but the truth is that stadiums in England are going down the same road. For the Americans, it’s exactly the kind of awkward path they excel in following, a journey involving a million tiny humiliations that would capsize a typical European (or at least an Irish person or Briton) going completely unnoticed. At least, in the American case, they are actively trying to create a sporting culture from scratch. The English are losing theirs in a miasma of high ticket prices, shameless and reckless globalization from the billionaires controlling the game, a pusillanimous administration helpless in the face of brazen cheating by cosseted millionaire players, and half and half scarves. My father has often lamented that the game is done; unfortunately, it may turn out that in this particular generation the doomsayer father was correct.
So the Portland Timbers, for me. I suppose it would be easier if I actually lived in Portland. I could have my cake and eat it, too. All the while draped in the authenticity of loyalty, turning my nose up at the monstrous uncouthness of the capitalist beast, pontificating day by day as he slowly makes his way across the sea.