For most of my life I’ve been a person who actively rebels against liking the thing everyone else likes. I’ve abandoned bands, clothing lines, and sports teams after years spent expending energy and giving support – after they exploded into popularity, I didn’t want to be thought of as one of “those kids” who likes the thing that’s mainstream. So, how did a person like me become a supporter of Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Los Angeles Galaxy? How do I reconcile my support for those clubs every time someone accuses me of being “uninformed” or “trend-hopping” ?
My journey to mainstream soccer fandom starts, like many, with a player. I started following Manchester United in 1998 when a good friend of mine moved to Manchester for university. I fell head over heels into a massive football player crush on David Beckham and got myself well and truly hooked – to the degree that someone in the U.S., who didn’t own a computer or get English football broadcasts, was able.
When Beckham left, I had a more than acceptable favourite-player replacement in Cristiano Ronaldo. I followed both of them from Manchester to Madrid and am now a Madridista as well as a Red Devil. Although I live in the middle of the U.S., I’ve spent many a late Sunday night resigned to the fact that, thanks once again to Beckham, I’ve become a fan of Los Angeles Galaxy. It seems like I’m constantly falling in love with another big name player and adding another big name club to my “must watch” list, no matter how much I’d like to embrace mid-table, small-market soccer fandom.
For most of my time as a fan, loving big name clubs never felt odd to me. In the United States soccer has only recently started to become as popular as it is in the rest of the world, and even then only among a subset of sports fans. Although love for the game is growing, there are many who still don’t consider it a “major sport”, and most people I meet would still rather talk for hours about the NFL than listen to me discuss the other kind of football for more than a few seconds. To me, liking clubs like United and Real was never like – if you’ll pardon my baseball analogy here – cheering for the Yankees or the Red Sox, because literally no one else I knew was doing it. As I spent my Monday morning free periods in the school computer lab reading the few articles I could dig up online from English newspapers and wishing I could afford a subscription to Four Four Two, it almost felt like I was part of a secret club that my American friends just wouldn’t understand.
All of that has changed in recent years. MLS has grown into a respected league; the Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A, Ligue MX, Bundesliga, and La Liga are (somewhat) accessible to most of the United States at the touch of a button. The US men’s national team have become more competitive on the world stage and while the women’s national team have grown into a perennial power. Win or lose, people across the country are starting to take notice of what had largely been a disregarded sport.
Often, these people don’t have the history with the sport as those fans that have been following forever, but they grew up modeling their game after international greats such as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Zinedine Zidane. They adore these players and their big money, big name clubs in much the same way I did when I first came into the game.
Then there are those who’ve been supporting the sport for decades, since long before it was the popular thing to do. They are the fans who tell the soccer equivalent story of walking uphill both ways in the snow in order to watch their team play a match at 5:00 on a Saturday morning on a tiny television in the corner of a crowded bar – ask me about desperately scouring websites hoping for one English-language article on Real Madrid. They know all the stats, all the trivia, and are relentlessly passionate about their teams and about the sport as a whole. These are the people who are leading the charge, often while clad in their vintage kits from teams in lower leagues, to gain more support for U.S. Soccer and soccer fandom as a whole in the United States.
The thing is, although they are both lovers of the game and, deep down, are all working toward the same goal – growing soccer in the United States – these two groups don’t always get along.
As soccer fandom grows in the U.S., I’ve found myself facing greater judgement from other fans for my choice in clubs. I’ve learned to either avoid this conflict in the first place by not wearing my team’s colours, or to defend myself repeatedly to people who still question my fandom choices…despite years of deep conversations around football, over days spent together drinking beer out of the NASL trophy, grilling communal food, and singing our hearts out for our local club.
While I don’t owe anyone an explanation for my choice in teams, I feel that as someone who has been watching the beautiful game for nearly two decades and has built up a wealth of football knowledge, it is important that I offer a defense. Yes, I came to the game because of players like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, but that doesn’t mean that’s where my love of soccer ends.
Big players and big clubs can be the gateway to deeper fandom. I wouldn’t be a fan at such a deep level if I hadn’t followed players or managers from club to club, learning more about the game and how I like to see it played week after week. I was drawn to Tottenham Hotspur by Gareth Bale and Luka Modrić and somehow ended up helplessly at the mercy of Spurs, while having added to an ever-growing list of reasons to watch Real every week. I’ve attached myself to players and managers and formations, and it all started by bonding with a friend over David Beckham.
One of the reasons Major League Soccer is growing in popularity is that clubs are bringing in players like Beckham, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Kaká. These players draw attention to the league and to the game as a whole. They give fans a chance to learn, to participate in the sport on a deeper level. Fans of Messi and Neymar and Cristiano and Bale turn to international competitions such as the Euros and Copa América, where they gain exposure to lesser-known players in countries whose clubs they’d never think to watch.
Throughout the years, I’ve loved soccer on the pristine pitches of UEFA finals and on the bumpy pitches of multi-purpose municipal parks. I love it while singing with my fellows on the march to the match, and I love it while screaming at my TV alone on a weekend morning. I’ve grown to love clubs big and small. But, ultimately, what I love the most is seeing the game played with passion and beauty.
Labeling someone as “not a real fan” because they like a certain club or player often turns people off any involvement with soccer in the U.S., simply because they don’t feel a need to justify supporting a club or a player that brings joy to their lives – for whatever reason. If we are serious about growing the game in this country, then we should welcome all who want to enter without judgement or demands.
Even though I take great pleasure in watching an English League 2 side take down a Premier League giant in the FA Cup and I care deeply about lesser-loved clubs like Feyenoord, Lazio, and Southampton, the reality of my football life is that sometimes I want to watch the most talented players in the world play the beautiful game in beautiful fashion. Sometimes, I am moved to tears by watching Cristiano break away from three defenders to put home the winning goal that helps his team lift yet another trophy.
The United States is a country of front-runners who live to see exciting feats of athletic prowess. Instead of dividing, we should all come together around a shared love of soccer – be it big money and big talent or the grassroots local movement. Let’s not concern ourselves over what teams those around us support. Let’s not worry why the person across the bar supports this or that club. Let’s just all bask in our shared interest, our shared passion, and enjoy the majesty of the beautiful game being played well.