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Why rooting for football in the U.S. is like being into Nirvana before it took over the world

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Illustration by Emmanuel Polanco for Eight by Eight

In 1989, I remember listening to Nirvana’s first full LP, Bleach, until the grooves were ground down to dust. “Love Buzz,” “School,” “Negative Creep”—for a small group of friends, this was our jam. We’d play it for other people, get a “What is this shit?” look, and take pride that we knew something they didn’t. Their non interest, ignorance, or outright contempt were our badges of honor. It was significantly uncool to like the music we liked—it didn’t get played at parties, it didn’t get you laid, it didn’t get you any credit in the straight world at all. Our only option was to feed off that negativity and make it our tribal identity.

I was working at 17 magazine as an editor in 1992 when the advance single of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” arrived at the office. The moment I listened to it, I knew: I didn’t own loving Nirvana anymore. It was going to be something everyone did, and soon. (That 17 put Color Me Badd on the cover instead of Kurt and Courtney was just down to my own lack of power.)

In addition to loving punk rock in my youth, I loved soccer. I’d lived in England as a kid and brought back with me a decent right foot, the ability to deliver a cross, and an eye for the goal. In the mid-’80s in Massachusetts that was enough to make me a star player and get my college bills paid. But soccer was clearly a cult sport, and following international soccer was for foreigners. Team USA had failed, the NASL had failed, and indoor soccer was really indoor “soccer.”

By the end of that decade, the States had at least qualified for Italia ’90, via the hilariously misnamed “Shot heard round the world”—Paul Caligiuri’s goal against Trinidad, watched by several people on ESPN and cared about by Bob Ley and some folks who were into Calypso music. To watch the World Cup that year, I had to find a bar on Martha’s Vineyard that would actually show the games. There was a Portuguese fisherman’s bar near where I was building houses, so I’d slip out at midday. Just me, my best friend, and some fisherman—not another soul seemed to care. But care we did, and it felt special: uniquely ours. Sure, Tomas Skuhravy and company treated the U.S. team with suitable European contempt, but we came close against Italy, Eric Wynalda showed a couple of moments of true class, and there was some hope, the dimmest of lights at the end of the tunnel.

1994 was a weird aberration. It was as if we skipped the Clash and went right to Green Day. Sure, it was a celebration, but it was the celebration of throwing a huge event (something the U.S. does better than anyone) rather than an emerging sport’s “moment.” Soccer still wasn’t cool, and it didn’t seem like it was going to be any time soon. By then I lived in L.A., and the following year, when the Galaxy casino online started up, I’d go to games with a couple of friends.(Some were Mexican or Mexican-American and would find all this analysis nonsense).

By 2002, you’d think things might have been different, but when my now slightly larger crew of friends were yelling and screaming after Brian McBride scored against Portugal at 3 a.m. PST, mostly what we heard from our L.A. neighbors was some version of “Shut the fuck up, assholes!” Kind of what I used to hear when I played the Fall or Fugazi too loud.

Now it’s 2015, and Franklin Foer has written a book, How Soccer Explains the World, that doesn’t explain how soccer explains the world so much as make soccer cool for the elite D.C. class. Anyone under 35 who’s into video games has been playing FIFA for most of their life. The Premiership shows games on NBC every weekend, and there are three channels devoted to soccer, plus endless online opportunities. Bars during the World Cup were packed. People gave a shit about Landon Donovan not being on the U.S. team. ESPN top 10 highlights regularly feature Cristiano Ronaldo.

It’s not mine anymore. Liking soccer is no longer some weird thing that makes you quirky; it’s something you’re supposed to have some knowledge of just to be life literate. It’s the difference between Bleach and American Idiot. Six thousand people bought Bleach when it came out; 2 million bought American Idiot. Owning a copy of the latter isn’t a stance, isn’t special, isn’t quirky—it’s expected.

So, good news! The thing I always loved and thought was special is now a thing lots of people agree is special. I was right all along! But I can’t lie: There’s something a bit sad about losing that feeling of isolation, a certain kind of righteousness. It’s sad to become part of the masses instead of standing out in the crowd. It’s true that the “I’m more obscure than you” stance can quickly become “I’m a total douchebag,” but anyone who thinks that Seattle crowds of 40,000 people singing in unison while their expensively assembled team plays in front of them is anything less than awesome is just wrong.

Still: Bleach was a pretty fucking great album, and I’m not sure we’ll ever see its like again.

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Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Tom says:

    That’s a great analogy! It seems that soccer here is really growing it’s own identity and about to reach a tipping point. I’m from the UK and the way you’ve described it is similar to how the NFL feels like it’s about to ‘go mainstream’ after decades of being a very niche interest! Great article!

  • Nat says:

    I’m sorry I took the time to read this. This writer actually comes off like a total douche.

  • Seth says:

    It’s like you took all the thoughts out of my head and put them on your website.

  • Chris says:

    Nearly 40 and soccer has always been my passion – translation, this article is totally relatable!

    Maybe I’m douche too (I’m ok if that’s the case!), but I liked being the only one who knew who Paul Caliguiri is; recognizing guys like Mike Sorber or Bruce Murray on sight; knowing I knew better when somebody called me a “[email protected]” or said, “I tried to watch soccer once, it was stupid!”.

    It’s nice that we can fill stadiums and actually get a crowd cheering more than just “USA! USA! USA!” once in a while now, but the days of wide-eyed, “I liked their early stuff”, secret joy are gone.

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