Sporting narratives are so male-dominant that it’s hard to even imagine where something feminine or—gasp—maternal might fit into the genre, a space crowded with 30 For 30 stories about little boys with big dreams overcoming adversity. Even when these tales focus on the lowly among us, the mere mortals who consider ourselves fans, the perspective is generally male, or at least young enough as to be essentially sexless. In this context, it’s hard to see a place for yourself if you’re not part of the dominant narrative, and this makes it that much more important that alternate stories are told as well.
My own started with an unplanned pregnancy and the 2006 World Cup. I was pregnant and essentially bedridden with the horribly mis-named “morning” sickness, so I was glued to the couch pretty much around the clock. My brother and sister came to visit me in LA for the summer, and we devoured every game, singing the stupid commercial jingles that aired on repeat all day. (I love Tito’s tacos—you love Tito’s too!)
After being sucked in by the World Cup, I vowed to watch more soccer in the coming season, so I signed up for the DirecTV sports package and set my DVR to record every Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A game available. I was pretty good about watching the big games every week in the beginning, but this got kicked into high gear after my daughter was born in October. She was an insanely fussy baby, the kind other people call “colicky” and I call “assholes.” She barely slept at night, and she only napped in the arms of myself or her dad. At the time, I was a grad student with only one class left, and he was a high school teacher, so I was home with her 90% of the time. Thus, multiple hours a day would pass with me unable to move while she slept in my arms.
Even that was a godsend, though, as anything that resulted in her not screaming was welcome. So in order to make the most of it, I cued up the recorded vacuum noise on the computer and made my naptime preparations: cell phone, remote control, and bottle of water at the ready and within arm’s reach of the rocking chair. I would then proceed to watch match after match of Europe’s top leagues, and inevitably I fell in love.
When the season started, I had it in my head that I was going to be a Barcelona fan. I can’t tell you exactly why, other than the fact that I had already figured out that Ronaldinho was an incredible player and Barcelona had just won the Champions League so they must be a good team to watch. My husband was also on board with this pro-Barca agenda, so we embarked on our journey futbolistico with the Catalans squarely within our sights.
This worked out okay for a while, as they clearly had a very talented team, but after watching the top teams play, week in and week out, it became harder to root for them over Madrid because, well, there just seemed to be little heart there. I’m not saying that as the Madridista I currently am; this was genuinely how I perceived it at the time, with no malice intended. Ronaldinho was brilliant but seemed largely uninterested. I always loved Xavi and Carles Puyol, but there weren’t many others who really captured my interest. Granted, Messi was injured for much of my early time watching the team so I didn’t have a chance to latch onto him. But whatever the case, when the rivals squared off against each other, I found myself pulling for Real Madrid despite my contradicting intentions.
As anyone familiar with that particular season knows, 2006-07 was not a good time to be on the fence regarding Barcelona, because it ended in dramatic fashion and not in favor of the Blaugrana. I was also vaguely pulling for Sevilla at that time, because Dani Alves was electric and I liked the idea of one of the smaller teams beating the Goliaths of Madrid and Barcelona. It all came down to the second to last game of the season. Madrid and Barcelona were tied on points, but Madrid held the tie-breaker based on their head-to-head record. As goals poured in across both games, played simultaneously, the top spot changed hands multiple times until Ruud Van Nistelrooy equalized for Madrid in the 87th minute and Raul Tamudo netted the Tamudazo in the 89th to rob Barcelona of any points. This left Real Madrid as league leaders, which continued after the final week’s games and resulted in the title for Los Blancos.
I still remember watching GolTV’s coverage of the final games, as they would display a three-way split screen at times to show the progress of the three teams still in contention, and I also remember the elation of watching Madrid lock up the title in the last moments. As an introduction to European soccer in general and La Liga in particular, I couldn’t have picked a better moment to step in. Much to the dismay of my ex-husband, I celebrated the end result and the victory for Madrid, and this carried forward into subsequent seasons when I abandoned my sincere efforts to be a Barcelona fan and instead stuck with the Merengues, in whose corner I remain to this day.
It’s been an eventful twelve years since then, and I have done everything in my power to watch every Real Madrid game during that time. Comcast tried on multiple occasions to separate me from my team, but I found a way around every time. The first time it happened, I would watch the matches on shitty streams after my daughter had gone to bed (which she now did outside of my arms) and blogged about the results. When Comcast again stopped broadcasting the network that carried La Liga games, I tried and failed to get my apartment to approve a satellite dish for me. As a result, I moved back in with my dad and got the entire household switched over to DirecTV so that I could keep watching Madrid play weekly. I have since changed cable providers twice more and subscribed to Sling TV in order to stay up-to-date with the goings-on in Madrid.
In the meantime, I have become a mom to two more spoiled rotten little girls and increased my interaction with the sport as both a fan and a writer. Both of these processes—raising girls and writing about soccer—have taught me just how different a path it is for women, especially those of us who try to venture away from the stereotypically feminine. Every single time we enter a traditionally male arena, which pretty much all of sports is, we will be questioned, looked at askance, and outright diminished; extreme demonstrations of our knowledge and skills are required to even get a concession that we might have a place in the conversation. The fact that I root for a club that doesn’t even have a women’s team is not lost on me, and that—as well as all the other problematic patriarchal elements of the sporting world—makes partaking in the experience a morally ambiguous one. I’m not sure what the correct response to this issue is, but I do know that I am teaching my girls that we can only change things by interacting with them and not by allowing ourselves to be pushed to the side. This is a story we have every right to tell.