I don’t know if I’m going to be covering the upcoming North American soccer seasons. I know I’ll be watching but as far as writing goes, who knows. However, in an effort to be ‘matchfit’ should I decide to, I’ve been writing reviews of the soccer books I read over the winter. Here is the first that I wrote but the third that I’ve published.
It’s all too easy to forget about your favorite sport during its off-season. Many will wince at this statement insisting that the off-season is almost unendurable for them. Those that do so are lying, at least, to themselves. Here in the United States there’s never a time of year sports aren’t happening. Usually when one sport’s season is ending, another is beginning. The American sports fan is never without distraction; the powers that be wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet there is a minority of individuals who only have one sport. These Americans care very little for contests other than the one they’ve pledged themselves to support, and they exist across all sports.
I’ve met hockey fans who barely acknowledge that anything happens during the warmer months (although, given that hockey now goes well into summer these individuals are becoming more and more ridiculous). There are baseball fans that might carve a night out to watch the Super Bowl but can’t be bothered to follow any other sports lacking the necessary statistical depth. Some sports and their fans bully their way into your consciousness. American gridiron football is the forced into every conversation whether participants follow or care about it, thus embodying the fundamental nature of assault that is the NFL. Basketball, which like golf is a sport somehow always on muted televisions year around, is a kind of cultural background noise. Because basketball is a static that only comes into focus for most people every Spring, when a mild lottery is engaged in to escape work and/or build camaraderie. This is when it becomes clear that there are dire basketball fans who seemingly exist only to give unwarranted advice.
But perhaps the most ardently myopic sport fan is the soccer supporter. The reason for this is two-fold. First, even within the tribe of soccer supporters there is rabid partisanship. While the rest of the American sports fan landscape is one of immoderation, the US soccer supporter is indignantly illiberal. It isn’t simply a matter of player versus player, city versus city, or team versus team (where most other sports end), but spiraling out farther league versus league, nation versus nation, and competition versus competition. Second, there is no off-season for soccer supporters. As the only sport that is completely worldwide, there is a nearly a hundred percent chance it’s being played professionally and enthusiastically covered somewhere year round. Soccer is never-ending and because of this, the soccer supporter has zero time to pay attention to the seasonal provincial amusements of non-soccer fans.
Such fierce partisanship is regularly accompanied by a bizarre mixture of arrogance, insecurity, and sciolism. The simple fact is, many and most of US soccer fans are rather callow, belligerently so. All the more reason for us to embrace that uniquely American urge, autodidacticism. Simply put, we want to know more and we will hunt out resources allowing us to get that slight edge for one fleeting moment in conversations with our peers.
I am being more than a bit snarky. While my nation’s domestic leagues were in their off-season, I decided to take a break from following live soccer to amplify my personal knowledge. Here are some reviews of some very, very good soccer reads.
Origin stories matter. In an origin story, you can find comity, a respite from isolation, and sense of kinship. For US soccer fans, the sport isn’t something cultivated as an identity. Fans come to the game on their own, sometimes in their own experience, rarely through friends, and even more rarely through family. We don’t inherit the game, we find it, and because of this each fan feels an acute sense of ownership and rightness. Michael Agovino has composed a memoir that is more than a story of becoming and staying a soccer supporter, it is a recollection of how he not only made the sport his own but also how his family (specifically his father) encouraged his obsession.
I was struck by just how authentic The Soccer Diaries was. In the age before the Internet, Agovino had to hunt out resources: books, mail-order VHS tapes, Spanish-language television and radio coverage, and the community of ex-patriots from all over the world who made New York City’s boroughs their home. But what is perhaps most striking about Agovino’s story is just how willingly supportive his parents were about his youthful obsession. It suggests that his parents recognized this soccer bug was not mere passing fancy or phase, it was becoming a part of their son’s identity. Insisting that his family fold into their trips overseas (for vacation or work) outings to whatever matches were happening in the city they found themselves, Agovino appears to have put together a rather comprehensive program collection.
The enthusiasm with which he collected those match day programs as a boy is carried through to his young adulthood and maturity where we see him not just pursue a career in sport journalism but an authentic eagerness to get to know others who reveal their nascent or deep interest in soccer. Agovino doesn’t want to be superior or one of the mandarin, he wants to be your friend and soccer is the way he can do that.
The contemporary landscape of soccer would put Agovino in the ‘Eurosnob’ category, because it is much easier to revert to a false dichotomy rather than genuinely engage in conversation (this is a symptom of the early social media era of the Internet). Growing up during an era where the United States lacked a professional league and a connected culture, Agovino found his desire for soccer sated via the European game. But there is clearly never a time when Agovino feels the need to exclude people from the sport, which the term ‘Eurosnob’ (and its counterpart ‘MLS fanboy’) do. Rather, we have a story of someone who only caught the end of the first NASL, lived through the dark ages of zero professionalism, and the rise of new professional domestic leagues. There isn’t a moment in the book where Agovino demands a litmus test of a potential fan. In fact, he recoils at this notion. Rather, he demands of himself and others like him to be catholic in their knowledge so that they can help bring more to the game. He presents us with an adult who wants to be the resource to those versions of his younger self.
The Soccer Diaries is the chronicle of a US soccer fan before Major League Soccer, before the United States believed in soccer and actually could give a good account of itself internationally, it’s the story of what we could call the first generation of the modern US soccer supporter. Those of us who grew up alongside Major League Soccer and were able to actually attend matches would be the second, and the third generation would be those who have never know our nation to not have professional leagues, a beloved national team (Men’s and Women’s), and a vibrant culture of coverage. Agovino’s The Soccer Diaries is the testament of those patient fans who knew in their heart-of-hearts that soccer in the US wouldn’t fade away, that it would grow into what we see today, and continue to do so.
The Complete Darkness 2014: An Annual Review of Minnesota United FC, W.H. Burdine and Bill Stenross, editors, Byline Press, 2015
Golazo!: The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup, Andreas Campomar, Riverhead Books, 2014
Love Thy Soccer: The Fan Rewrites the Book on the American Game, Sean Reid, 2015
The Damned Utd, David Peace, Melville House, 2014