Tuesday, July 08, 2008

European soccerball

During Euro 2008, I couldn't help but notice that watching football at the pub here is, well, a bit odd. For a start, the time difference means that European football games kick off at any point from 4am onwards on the Pacific coast, and pubs seems to get progressively stranger for every extra hour before noon you visit them pretty much anywhere in the world (outside of Leith, at least). Then there are local peculiarities such as US broadcaster ESPN's regular commentary pundit Tommy Smyth, an eccentric Irishman who seems to have tricked the locals into thinking that "he's bulged the old onion bag!" is an acceptable euphimism for "goal". But, most of all, there is the solitude.

I'm used to football-watching being a communal activity. In Britain, even inconsequential mid-table, lower-league games featuring obscure teams will not only be shown in most pubs, but you can be sure that a large proportion of the drinkers present will be keeping at least half an eye on the action. Presumably this just in case that guy with two left feet playing up front suddenly blasts one into the top corner like Ronaldo. Or perhaps because watching Scunthorpe Utd vs Crewe Alexandria is a better prospect than staring at the flashing lights on the fruit machine - or, perish the thought, actually talking to someone. This meant that even on those rare occasions in London that I managed to persuade an unsuspecting pub to show a game featuring my home team, perennial Scottish underachievers Hearts, I could be pretty sure that I wouldn't be alone.

Things are different here in the US, where I have been relegated to a small, subversive minority of "soccer" fans for even the biggest games. We gather in carefully selected pubs at strange times of the day to huddle around the one television not dedicated to showing proper sports like senior tour golf, last weekend's Nascar highlights, or women's college softball.

But for the past few weeks, as the Euro championship progressed towards its conclusion, our small numbers grew a little. An Irish pub close to my work dutifully showed all the games, and the games that kicked off in the evening in Europe coincided quite nicely with my lunch hour here. During the group stages there were generally only a handful of us, and we would sit at one end of the bar, watching pictures without any sound, surrounded by indifferent locals. But, by the time the semi-finals came round, not only had the sound been turned up, but it was standing room only. Admittedly, some of the people present for those games were slightly confused locals who had stumbled in by accident, but most of us were there to actually see the match, and our numbers included both football-loving foreigners like myself, and that strangest and rarest of beasts: the genuine American soccer fan.

They are still a minority among their own countrymen, but their numbers are growing - and, thankfully, I'm friends with quite a few of them. The fascinating thing for me is the way this small splinter group of American sports fans, and the game of football itself, are viewed by the majority here. In the UK, football supporters are stereotypically thought of as boorish, uncultured lager lads, but here the opposite is true. To have even noticed the sport tends to take a certain cosmopolitan outlook, and the game also has a reputation in the States for being effete, certainly in comparison to the home-grown brand of football. One of the most common criticisms I hear about the round-balled version of the game concerns players "flopping", or diving, which seems to run counter to two of the most fundamental doctrines held dear by most American sports fans: masculinity and authenticity.

(Ironically, foreign football fans also have a reputation in the US for hooliganism, fighting and general thuggery, but we'll ignore that apparent contradiction for now)

These are generalisations, of course, but it's probably no coincidence that the only mainstream American celebrity I can think of who has also come out as a football fan is every liberal intellectual's favourite comedian, Jon Stewart from The Daily Show. Well, him and NBA star Steve Nash, but he's a Canadian who was born in South Africa to British parents, so he doesn't really count.

But, now that Euro 2008 is over, the television in my local pub will have little to offer but a steady diet of baseball for the next few months. Well, that and the fruit machine in the corner.

Oooh, pretty flashing lights...

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