Over the weekend my daughter and I decided to visit a local bar and watch the footy. Italy was playing Spain somewhere in Austria, and we thought it would be fun to spend time together before she travels to Italy for a summer semester later this week.
The place was mobbed. We couldn't get a view of the TV. Had to come home.
This is no longer unusual in America. It's seldom remarked upon, but it may be the most important sports story of the decade here. Ordinary Americans are dropping their obsessions with baseball, NASCAR and basketball to cheer on a bunch of guys in shorts doing what their kids do on Saturday mornings.
Now some of these people are immigrants. Some of these people are kids who grew up on soccer. But I'm beginning to believe, increasingly, that some of it is political.
After all American soccer is still a mess. MLS has no promotion, no relegation, no reason for people who don't live near a team to care. Even with David Beckham. Instead they're recruiting billionaires (like Arthur Blank) to convince taxpayers they need 20,000 seat stadiums and telling local teams built from the ground-up to suck on it.
As a result, very few Americans care about MLS. I don't.
No, what Americans are watching is, primarily, European football. English football, Spanish football, Italian football, and international football. They understand what they're watching and can comment on it coherently. (Most are much better at this than the hacks who now announce it and just say "goal" at a score like it's a 15-foot jumper at a high school basketball game.)
As a test I wore my old Sheffield Wednesday kit (above) to a recent community wine stroll. (It was something I bought almost a decade ago because a close friend lives in Sheffield and the SWFC on the shield can also read SouthWest Football Conference -- that's Rice old school.) Long story short a whole bunch of people recognized it, knew what it represented, and some even wanted to talk about the team. Sheffield Wednesday hasn't even played in the English Premier League since the dawn of the century.
So what could possibly have caused it?
I think the womens' game started it. The 1999 victory of the U.S. in the World Cup, followed by the three-year reign of the WUSA, made the game political. Following womens' football was an act of feminist defiance at the height of the Iraq War hysteria.
Then the men beat Mexico in 2002 and it started snowballing. Where did these guys make their living, and what were those teams they were playing for over there, and look at those huge crowds, and look at how much fun they're having. And now I have something to talk about with my friends in Old Europe, and look how different I am now from the Bushies and their people.
European football has sailed through all sorts of scandals, yet American interest keeps rising. A German referee fixes matches and no one here cares. The Italian League fixes matches and no one here cares. What we care about is that it's not American football, with its hideous violence, military tie-ins and criminal players. It's not baseball with its steroids and its taxpayer-financed palaces (each one smaller than the last) and its non-stop commercials. It's not basketball with its commercial breaks and 7-foot freaks no one can identify with. Look, DeMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan are men of average size, and they're pretty good people. Look, Tim Howard plays with Tourette's, and he plays pretty darned good. My daughter noticed how Ty, the beanie baby people, sponsored Portsmouth, and she's a huge Brad Friedel fan.
That's the thing about American soccer players in Europe. They're not stupid, they're not on drugs, their egos are well in check. They can enjoy fame over there then come home and walk into a mall without getting hassled. These are good family men you can root for, that you can point out to your kids and say, that's what we're all about.
And so a new kind of nationalism has developed around football. (Notice I'm no longer calling it soccer?) It's humble, it speaks the language of others, it's a nationalism based on good sportsmanship and enjoying the other side's trips. It's fun watching the Euros, the fans in their funny hats, painted bodies, agonizing over every kick but we're neutrals, although my sister-in-law is Greek and my ancestors came from Germany and what other countries are in your heritage, let's root for them too!
When you're a football fan you can ignore the Bushies and all their machinations, for at least a few hours. You can revolt against your government while remaining intensely patriotic. You can have your sport, the way you think it should be, and enjoy the company of the rest of the world. You find yourself in a different mileau where you don't know much, where there's so much to learn, and the other fans are happy to teach you over a pint of something cold.
And of course we can teach them something too. We can teach them it's just a game, that it's fun for kids when it's not intensely competitive, that you can be a pro and a fine human being at the same time.
Orange slices for everyone.