by Brian Fobi
Brian Fobi, a Yale graduate student based in South Africa, is attending all three U.S. matches, all three Brazil matches, 2 round of 16 ties, 2 quarterfinals and a semifinal. After getting past our immense jealously, we asked Brian to post his thoughts for us.
RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Walking away from the impossibly rustic and comically rural Royal Bafokeng Stadium, I took in the scene and felt a sense of redemption after years of something like shame.
Let me explain. Four years ago, after a long day of watching soccer in a Dusseldorf fan zone, three of my friends and I retreated to a local bar. As with this year, the World Cup had coincided with the NBA Finals, and wanting to catch the action, we asked the bartender to change one of the TVs to the game.
With a wide grin, the bartender said, “Yes, I will do this. (Dirk) Nowitzki … the best player in the NBA!” Choosing to ignore the laughable factual error, we were all pleased that a day of drinking, making friends with locals and soccer would be capped by a 1:30 a.m. game of championship basketball.
But, it was not to be so easy. From the corner came a voice that angrily bellowed, “Basketball is rubbish, mate!”
Turning to see the commotion, I saw a group of American soccer fans in full regalia, complete with an incongruous collection of scarves from various Premier League teams that they apparently supported. They told me that during the World Cup nobody wanted to see basketball. Groaning, I knew that I had once again encountered one of the most vexing figures in American sports: the American Soccer Superfan.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not some Jim Rome rant taking pot-shots at soccer; I love soccer. I grew up playing the game on the dusty streets of Cameroon and followed it through the pre-Internet Dark Ages when doing so meant paying $250 a year to get months-late copies of FourFourTwo, signing up for every American soccer newsletter I could get my hands on or staying up until 3 a.m. to watch highlights on Mexican TV.
But, in my journey through the American soccer universe, I kept meeting different version of that guy. He wears Lotto shoes and too-short shorts. Forgetting which side of the Atlantic he grew up on he speaks nonsense like, “rubbish, mate.” He will show up to an LA Galaxy—DC United match with a Glasgow Rangers jersey and, somehow, think that that makes sense. And, most annoyingly, he adopts the British tic of being unable to distinguish single entities from plural ones. England *are* a good team? There’s more than one England? God save us all …
In much the same way that an Ultimate Frisbee player takes pride and happiness from the fact that he spends his afternoons playing a sport that nobody cares about (or has any earthly business caring about), the American Soccer Superfan seems to draw an inordinate oddball pleasure occupying an ignored space in the American sporting landscape. There was a certain earnestness combined with foolishness that always made me bristle.
As a result, I am fairly certain that in my life I never talked about “training,” the “pitch” or said the word “nil.” Preferring my Webster’s to my Oxford, I assiduously spoke of “practice,” the “field” and somehow managed to find the strength to summon up the extra syllable required to say “zero.” Through high school, college and throughout my adult life, this guy has haunted me, and I often found myself in the difficult position of loving soccer, but being embarrassed by the all-too-serious, yet all-too-comical ragtag group of folks with whom I would be grouped.
When the draw for the World Cup was conducted last winter, I knew that the USA-England match had a particular potential to produce embarrassing moments. For too long, American Soccer Superfans had modeled themselves after British fans, adopting their lingo, singing knock-off version of English songs, and otherwise trying to mimic what they saw from British fans.
So, when I stepped off the bus in Rustenburg and saw a group of English fans taunting a group of American fans with a “who are ya?” chant followed by a song that involved impolite comments about Bob Bradley and Landon Donovan’s relationship, I worried that I was about to have one of those moments. No doubt, some sad collection of American fans would reply with a lame version of a song we had stolen from them, at which point more of the ubiquitous English fans would join the inevitable retort, and us few proud American fans would have to retreat in shame.
Instead, I experienced a moment of near perfection. At the conclusion of their song, the English fans stood with their arms crossed awaiting the American response. Instead of allowing the situation to devolve into a pathetic Sharks-versus-Jets sing-off, though, an American fan simply shouted, “Hey Churchill, if I wanted to hear a song, I’d go to Broadway.”
Laughter erupted from the American fans. In justified dismissive bemusement, they turned their backs on their English antagonists and returned to the more immediate issue of barbecue. Befuddled, but not beaten, the England Boys Choir offered one more volley: a typically atonal “at least we won the World Cup.”
Now agitated that their sausages and burgers had been interrupted by an infliction of some kind of Simon Cowell version of World Cup fandom, a single American fan turned around and shouted, “GDP, GDP, GDP!” More laughter from American fans. Unable to draw their American fans into one of their idiotic glee club competition sing-off, the English scattered and America claimed the day.
Throughout the day, I saw and heard signs that the American soccer fan had entered the mainstream. They wore regular shoes, understood and used American verb conjugation, talked about the full range of American sports and looked and acted just like the fans you might see at a Steelers, Mariners or Knicks game. Americans of every age, race and background were represented, and they were all utterly normal, completely American. No superfluous “u’s” or inbred heads of state here.
It was a revelation. What I saw was a soccer fan base that had begun to accept the game on its own terms, as Americans. They no longer wanted to be England-Lite, and it no longer made sense to think that in order to enjoy soccer you had to take on the trimmings of our British brothers. Instead, in recognition of the fact that we have a sports and fan culture as wonderful, robust, dynamic, fun and dedicated as any on the planet, that night we cheered like Americans, acted like Americans and strutted around the expanses of cow pastures that surrounded the stadium with perfect American pride. Meat pies, the queen and football were replaced by mom, apple pie and … soccer.
For me, June 12th will forever be linked to something more than a result earned on a soccer field; I will remember it as the night when the American soccer fan evolved into something more and better, stripped of the pretense of Anglophilia and more in line with who we are as a people and how we watch and celebrate sports.
While I will gladly pay homage to the efforts of the American Soccer Superfan who carried the sport when nobody else cared, the species has now evolved, and something better has displaced him. Respect him in his obsolescence, but do not mourn him and do not linger over his corpse. We are not yet the greatest soccer nation, and probably not even yet a good one. But, by infusing our sense of ourselves into how we play and watch soccer, we’re on the right track.