In case you’ve ever wondered what occupies my time outside of writing, the answer is, two things: my day job, and soccer.
Not playing it, mind you, watching it. In fact, other than a brief exposure in elementary school in which my shins were almost as bruised as my ego, I’ve never played an organized game in my life.
Growing up in L.A., it was all about baseball and basketball, or more specifically, Fernandomania and Showtime. Soccer wasn’t even a blip on my radar. When the U.S. Men’s National Team played in the World Cup in their home country in 1994, my attention was elsewhere. The U.S. Women in ’99 were the first soccer team to capture my imagination. They were fascinating to watch, even if I knew little back then about how the hell soccer is played.
One summer day, when there was nothing else on television, I tuned in to ESPN to watch an exhibition match between an English club and LA Galaxy in Los Angeles. I remember absolutely nothing about the game except for one amusing moment: a black guy with a mohawk received a pass on the edge of the 18-yard box and moved in for a clear shot at goal. But instead of shooting it with the front or side of his foot, he spun around and kicked it with his heel. The ball rolled lifelessly out of bounds. His manager was so angry at him he subbed him off with 15 minutes to go in the first half (I would later learn that managers generally don’t do that unless a player is injured). The dude wearing number 45 would later explain that he heard a whistle blowing in the stands and thought he was offside, so he let up and had a little fun. There was no proof to exonerate him from this apparent breach of soccer etiquette.
I was struck by the audacity of that mohawk-wearing outsider, comparing him to Terrell Owens or Chad Ocho-Cinco—a player whose undeniable skills were eclipsed by his bravado. His manager/coach was obviously a no-nonsense guy who was on the verge of creating a new image for his side, emerging from the shadows of their highly successful crosstown rivals. The player was Mario Ballotelli. The manager was Roberto Mancini. The team was Manchester City, and months later, they would win the Premier League title.
Not far away from where I was living at the time was a neighborhood Irish pub named Tim Finnegan’s. They were situated in a forgotten corner of the Metrocenter shopping area, a short walk from Castles and Coasters. Back then they were the place to be to watch the U.S. soccer teams, as well as a delicious plate of fish and chips and a cold pint of your favorite beer. I noted some of the décor around the place displayed the sky-blue colors of Manchester City. The barkeep, Jimmy, informed me that Finnegan’s was the gathering place for local Man City fans who met every weekend to catch their games on TV. He invited me to join them. I figured, why not? A little social activity wouldn’t hurt. Since I was working Saturdays at the time I joined them whenever I could, sometimes as early as five in the morning. It was a small group then, maybe seven or eight tops, but as word spread and the team’s success was more noticed by casual soccer fans like myself, the group grew larger year by year.
Today, at the beginning of my ninth season, The Desert Blues are an officially recognized Man City supporters group, one of 47 U.S. branches and hundreds worldwide. Most games we pack 30 to 50 happy Cityzens into The Kettle Black on 1st Street and Adams, cheering, toasting, and singing “Blue Moon” for the best team in the land and all the world.
Being a member has many benefits, not the least of which for me was winning a trip to Etihad Stadium in Manchester, U.K. to see Sergio Aguero bag a hat trick against Newcastle! But the biggest benefit is gaining an understanding of the game and the culture and being a representative in its ongoing fight against racism and nationalism. Soccer is not a perfect sport by any means; like any other major sport it’s corporate, and the scourge of corruption at its highest levels makes the NFL look quaint by comparison. But on the pitch, the speed, skill, endurance, and emotion of its athletes is like nothing I’ve ever seen. What really sells me on soccer, though, is the participation of the fans. Despite what you may have seen or read the modern soccer fan (or “supporter” as they’re called) is rarely a violent, unruly jerk. Hooligans are passé and unwelcome. At their best, the supporters bring such an organic passion to every game. Ever hear the crowd singing songs for individual players at an NFL game? Ever see a massive 20-by-20-foot banner unveiled before the start of an NBA game? Ever see a smoke bomb billowing colorful smoke into the air after your favorite baseball player hits a home run? Only in soccer do you see those things. And all of them are created and controlled by the fans. That’s beautiful.
You probably have your own reasons for not liking soccer, and that’s okay. But if you’re looking for a year-round pastime and an enthusiastic social network, I encourage you to give it a try. Better yet, invest in a ticket to a local MLS or USL match and sit in the supporters section behind the goal. It’s there that you’ll feel the heartbeat of this game. Like Mario Ballotelli, you’ll let up and have a little fun, and you won’t be sorry.