Anybody who knows me, who interacts with me on twitter, or has read this blog for long enough knows that I have more than a pinch of nostalgia for the game I grew up with: 1980s English Football. The game was thunderous; players didn’t dive, they went down because by 2012′s standards, they had been assaulted. Two-footed tackles from behind were common; barging a man off the ball by lowering a shoulder into theirs, sending them flying, was deemed to be “fair, that was shoulder to shoulder” by referees, commentators, and fans alike.
The ugly, physical game which I loved was matched by ferocity and wholesale bigotry in the stands. John Barnes had bananas tossed at him, anti-Semitic songs were rife at Arsenal, and women walking the perimeter of the stands were greeted with the rather charming chant from fans: “Get your tits out for the lads”. Throw in widespread violence and thuggery, a healthy smattering of legitimate fascist assholes, and you can imagine why fans and families started to walk away from the game in droves. It frequently wasn’t a good place to be.
This was compounded by the Hysel Stadium tragedy where Liverpool fans charged Juventus fans, who fled, causing a wall to collapse. The death toll of those crushed and trampled to death was 39. English teams were banned from European competition with the effect that the domestic game stagnated. English teams only played each other, in their own little fishbowl, and the backdrop was all perimeter fencing, barbed wire, and riot police. As the police and government waged war on the terrace warriors, as the Hillsborough Tragedy brought fundamental changes to stadiums, and as Sky TV started to change the way football finance worked, the game changed with it.
First, came the new stadiums, a crackdown on organized violence, and the re-emergence of football as something that England could be proud of and not ashamed of. Then, the climb of the Premier League from the humbled, tired, old First Division to the best league in the world … and then the fans came back. New fans.
There are guys in turbans at West Ham games on TV. I see women, children, families. I read that Arsenal have become the most cosmopolitan team in the world. Nobody is lobbing bananas at Bacary Sagna, and with the exception of the lout John Terry, it seems like much of the football world in the UK has moved to a much more mainstream position. It is such a good thing, tremendous to turn on big European games featuring English teams and not see rioting and fighting, it’s fantastic to see women in the stands.
The only thing holding it back from being the family game people want are the prices, but yet we still get echoes of the old game bleeding their way into 2012 from time to time. Former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson leaves a mic on, and we get to hear him calling a player a “lazy nigger”, a similar fate awaited Andy Gray, whose on-air sexist comments lead to his dismissal. West Ham vs Millwall anybody? Some of those old attitudes run deep, and take time to get rid of.
I still find myself missing the absolute rage and adrenaline rush that terrace pack mentality could bring out in any of us, but I don’t want it back. In 2012, my game is about the actual game. Fighting happens … on Twitter. Aggro? Who needs it.
The people’s game may not be affordable by “the people” anymore in the UK, but over here in the USA, it very much is. On the bleachers at Livestrong and Community America Ballpark, I’m proud to say that I have made many friends, in a polarized view of the game I grew up with, these folk are the standard, suburban WASPY Americans the rest of the world expects are US soccer fans, but they are also ex-patriot Englishman, Mexicans, Hondurans, African-Americans, Asians, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Atheists. I live in Liberty, MO, and I know a black dude with a Mohawk, attorneys, and sandwich-making hairy guys with green noise piercings. I’m just as likely to chat with a tattooed-up hairdresser on game day as one of the owners of the team himself. I’ve met so many different people, and by their hordes, female soccer fans ranging from graying, retired school teacher super-fans through to short-short-wearing teenagers. The one thing we have in common is the game, support of this team, and this sport; it is the thing that lets me make friends with people in Salt Lake, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and basically anywhere the game is played. The only color I ever really see is the shirts and the scarves, and thank god Sporting KC – I’m a married guy who has female friends who I can watch football with, have lunch with, introduce to my wife as “good people”.
All these labels, all the little name tags we like to put on each other, and I didn’t think about any of it before MLS Columnist Simon Borg started blathering on about men not finding female soccer fans attractive. MLS has suspended Borg for a week. MLS is sending him for sensitivity training, but really, when you think about it, all that involves is learning not to say certain things … it doesn’t change the attitude that he is a sexist pig, it just pops a bit of lipstick on him. It does nothing to alleviate the feeling that a relic of uglier, darker days in my soccer past are once more right here in my present. Except this wasn’t an accident, this wasn’t an open mic, this wasn’t something that we just got to hear randomly, but an actual, considered thought that was knowingly made for public consumption.
I can’t fathom how many different nationalities, political opinions, and religious conflicts could be unleashed upon US Soccer by the kind of thinking that serves to divide people instead of uniting them. Yet here we stand, soccer fans, and I don’t really care if you are male or female, straight or gay, where you are from, or what you think about outside of the game. It is brilliant, it is the way the world’s game should be and is exactly why this game continues to grow in the USA – the attitude of outreach that has fans bringing people to their first games, is exactly the same as the attitude that had a group of Kansas City kids met by a tangle of Chivas USA fans with a welcome, a handshake, and a few too many drinks. It is an attitude completely and utterly at odds with the comments made by Simon Borg, and I thank god that we are really talking about one individual rather than the 1980s English attitude that stadiums were no real place for women, so they have no right to be offended.
Honestly, I hope this is a writing on the wall moment for a guy that simply belongs in another age; that, or a come-to-Jesus moment. As it is, Borg just doesn’t fit MLS in 2012, no more than guys that watch Green Street Mafia and want to “set up a firm” do. Soccer in America is so much more than that, so much more. It is a movement,and all you need to do is join it to find just how broad and varied the people are that are making it the fastest growing sport in the USA, and how little things like sex, race and politics really matter when everybody ignores them and just gets on with the task at hand: loving the game … supporting your team… helping the game grow.
That is all there is to it, let’s drop the labels and get on with moving forward.
PS … Thanks to the lovely Sporting KC super fan Julie Hendershot for editing. If you really like what I do… leave me comments and click that like. It makes me happy.