[Published on June 6, 2014 in The New Republic]
By Shaj Mathew
It’s disappointing, though not terribly surprising, that this is how Jonathan Clegg begins his jeremiad against American soccer fans, published in the Wall Street Journal Thursday night: “Growing up as a soccer fan in England…”
Here we go.
To lend credibility to the screed that follows, Clegg reminds us that his English upbringing allows him to understand the sport in a way that Americans never will: “I’ve witnessed my fair share of horrors. I’ve seen shocking acts of violence, overheard hundreds of abusive chants and watched Pelé retire to sell erectile dysfunction pills.” He’s seen things. Clegg’s nod to his nationality also gives away his real reason for writing, the familiar hipster lament: he liked soccer (football) before it was cool, and now these neophytes are ruining everything.
“I’ve discovered there’s a new scourge on my beloved game that I simply cannot tolerate: Americans,” he writes. Particularly distasteful to Clegg are those on this side of the pond who really care about the sport; they are “derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous,” their behavior “an elaborate affectation.” In other words, they’re posers—unlike Clegg, who earned his fandom by watching English fans behave in infinitely more deplorable ways. Makes sense.
Clegg notes that U.S. soccer fans are copycats of European soccer fans. This is true. But Clegg does not find this flattering, arguing instead that we should stop mimicking the language and customs of the Old World. We Americans are not allowed to say “kit” or “pitch” in reference to jerseys or fields, and we should not wear scarves to “matches” when it’s hot out. Clegg wants us to develop our own soccer identity instead—and then immediately criticizes us for adding our own spin on things, deeming heretical the relatively innocuous American trait of shortening “penalty kick” to “PK.” He also cannot abide by fact that we call Team USA captain Clint Dempsey by the nickname he chose for himself, Deuce. We have to do it the British way: “Ever since a ball was first kicked into a net, it has been an inviolable law of the game that Dempsey should be shortened to Demps.”
But I thought we were supposed to chart our own course?
Clegg’s biggest flaw, though, is his fundamental misunderstanding of American culture. He complains about “a soccer fan wearing a replica Arsenal jersey, a team scarf around his neck and a pair of Dr. Martens lace-ups. He looked like he he’d been born and raised along the Holloway Road. In fact, he was from Virginia.” But he fails to mention—or perhaps is unaware—that Dr. Martens aren’t indigenous to England, but rather Germany. And when he observes that American “soccer snobs have pilfered elements of fan culture from Spain, Italy and Latin America,” he’s ignoring the fact that a significant percentage of U.S. soccer fans are of Latin American descent. (One-third of Major League Soccer fans are Hispanic.) American culture is uniquely shaped by the diversity of its immigrants, and that explains why our soccer fans have incorporated—or stolen, if you’re of Clegg’s persuasion—the habits of fans throughout the world, from Rio de Janeiro to London.
Clegg’s hypocrisy, argumentative contradictions, and ignorance of American culture notwithstanding, he makes a valid point about the elitism of soccer fans here, describing “a peculiar species of fan here whose passion for soccer seems to be less about 22 men chasing a ball up and down a field and more about its intellectual and cosmopolitan qualities. Never mind that no other sport is so linked to the working class. For these fans, rooting for an English soccer team is a highbrow pursuit and a mark of sophistication, like going to a Wes Anderson movie or owning a New Yorker subscription.”
I agree that it’s strange how, despite its proletarian roots, soccer is “the go-to sport of the thinking class” in the U.S. But isn’t it also a bit strange for Clegg to make that complaint in America’s go-to newspaper for the obscenely rich?