I USED TO have West Bromwich Albion all to myself.
Those words. To my ears—I must have been about nine or ten when I first heard “West Bromwich Albion” on a public television broadcast of a muddy English football match, sometime in the late ’70s—they were poetry, a little incantation evocative of a distant, misty, ancient land. The idea that many thousands of miles away the teams had names that could have described legions of knights or remote castles—“Aston Villa,” “Queen’s Park Rangers,” “West Bromwich Albion”—sparked the imagination as “Denver Nuggets” and “Cincinnati Reds” never could. Nottingham Forest? Sheffield Wednesday? Please.
West Bromwich Albion dressed nicely too. Dapper striped jerseys with buttons and collars and “WBA” monogrammed onto their left chest, as if they might also need these shirts for more formal occasions. Aston Villa’s jerseys were similarly sharp: Maroon to my eyes (though I would learn that it was “claret”) with sky-blue sleeves and subtle yellow trim, suitable for riding a horse or participating in a regatta. Liverpool wore all frightening red. They were like a wound, or like Communists. Arsenal’s sleeves were white. Why were their sleeves white? Who knew? But—
—what mattered was that I knew that their sleeves were white; I knew that West Ham dressed like Aston Villa and that Tottenham Hotspur sported a beautiful white shirt you could’ve worn to church. I knew West Bromwich Albion, and my friends did not. And soon, I knew about Germans too. “Soccer Made in Germany” was a Saturday afternoon can’t-miss on Oregon Public Broadcasting, and my ears—and life—filled up with an entirely different poetry: Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hamburger SV, Eintracht Frankfurt.
And their game. Soccer. I loved it. Its rhythms—movement, always movement…slow, then breakneck…—its sounds, religious chants pouring down from the stands upon the players; the game had a cool acceptance of ambiguity: Take the free kick near the foul, don’t bother calling the foul at all if it messes with the flow, and if we’re even at the end: Let’s just leave it. 1-1? Fine. Go home.
I had it to myself. Now, I don’t. Now, millions of Americans—like, millions, real millions—love this game too. Millions agonize with the fate of our national team, follow Major League Soccer, get up at strange hours to watch West Bromwich Albion.
So now that we’re all here, watching Sunderland and Schalke and Real Salt Lake, there is a book for our condition. Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Starts, Stats, and Stories of 101 Greatest Soccer Teams in the World, by Luke Dempsey, an Englishman who now lives in New Jersey. Dempsey once wrote a love-letter to Manchester United in Howler magazine that began with a memory of the ’78-79 season, in which West Bromwich Albion finished “a heady third” and Manchester United came ninth. (His inspired New Republic pieces during the World Cup included “Paradise Lost, 7-1: If Milton Did Post-Match Analysis for Germany-Brazil” and “Ketchup vs. Mayonnaise, and 9 Other Reasons Belgium Doesn’t Have a Chance Against the U.S.,” in which he describes Belgian attacker Eden Hazard as “the knowledge of sin.”) I expect people will buy Club Soccer 101 too. They should. It’s a breezy, entertaining read…the anecdotes coming at you like a speedy winger over the three- or four-page histories of Ajax Amsterdam, Bayern Munich and Boca Juniors. (And Pohang Steelers, the Central Coast Mariners and Norwich City—there are some truly shocking inclusions here, but I suppose Mr. Dempsey, likely a kicks-yer-heels defensive midfielder, is trying to pick a few fights.)
He is certainly bound to pick a fight with Peter Withe, former Portland Timbers and Aston Villa striker, who inelegantly shinned a ball in for Villa in the 1982 European Cup final—Dempsey mocks this monumental goal in his history of Aston Villa (twice), Bayern Munich and, just to get in another dig, Anderlecht of Belgium. And he will certainly run afoul of Leeds, Lazio and Levski Sofia fans, whose clubs are all held up as one or another representation of football’s—and society’s—ills. He will also offend plenty by including the New York Red Bulls as one of the world’s great football clubs, which they are not, but that’s his own business.
What he’s really doing is welcoming us all to his world, our world—he’s swinging open the door and giving soccer’s recent converts a tour of the church; if you’re going to love your Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy, he’s saying, you’ll need to know about Hapoel Tel Aviv and Kaizer Chiefs and you’ll most definitely need a conversational familiarity with Napoli and Peñerol of Montevideo. It’s a pleasant experience: Australia’s Central Coast Mariners aren’t here because they matter; they’re here because their announcer says things like “More flicks than an ’80s hair salon”; Pohang Steelers are here because they have an interesting name and this gives Dempsey the opportunity to point that other Asian clubs do too, e.g., “April 25” of North Korea and the now departed “Thai Farmers Bank Football Club.” A new baseball fan has to learn that the Red Sox and the Yankees only really matter in reference to the Royals and the Mariners. A new soccer fan gets to learn that Tim Howard and Landon Donovan are sporting citizens of a culture that goes layers and layers deep in any country you can name. Dempsey’s an amiable, idiosyncratic and effusive tour guide, and it’s the right soccer book for the right soccer time.
It’s almost unimaginable now to consider a time when European and South American football was a distant curiosity, when loving soccer in America was a borderline unpatriotic act of stubborn iconoclasm. In the early ’80s, when the Pele-driven experiment of the North American Soccer League was dying, my junior-high classmates took every opportunity to remind us soccer dudes that we were playing a Communist sport. If I had uttered the words “West Bromwich Albion” in their company, they would have thought I was clearing my throat.
Now, everyone knows. OK, not everyone, but a lot of people know. It’s not such a strange or special thing anymore to know a thing or two about the likes of AC Milan, Glasgow Celtic, Bayern Munich. Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan—these are just about household names in America, 2014. The average twelve-year-old is as likely to know what PSG stands for as she is to know who the Jacksonville Jaguars are. (OK—I live in the Pacific Northwest, so that may not be true everywhere, but still…) The great thing about knowing (I’ve always thought) is that if you knew a little something about, say, Manchester United, you’ll inevitably come upon the words “Red Star Belgrade” (now there’s some Socialist poetry) in a description of one of the first great United teams (the Busby Babes of the late ’50s, many of whom perished in a plane crash on the way back from a European Cup match in Yugoslavia), and that will lead you to Dinamo Zagreb and all the Dinamos and Dynamos of Eastern Europe, and now you’re thinking that there isn’t much difference between Serbia’s best and England’s best, and now you see the world a little differently than if your primary concern is the American League East or the NBA’s Pacific Division. After years of false dawns—most notably the ’70s Cosmos, the ’94 World Cup and the ’99 Women’s World Cup (remembered primarily for a certain famous and shirtless goal celebration)—the events of the summer of 2014 seem to have landed soccer in the American sporting mainstream once and for all. In July, Liverpool Football Club played in front of sellout crowds Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. One hundred and nine thousand people sat in the University of Michigan’s football stadium to see Real Madrid play Manchester United in a game that had no bearing on any standings anywhere.
So let us consider what it means that West Bromwich Albion’s league is no longer the stuff of public TV, or early pub mornings on satellite—English football is now on NBC, and it gets decent ratings considering the hour. And the World Cup, recently passed, served up ratings comparable to the NBA Finals and the World Series; over 21 million people watched the last two US matches, while the final drew a larger TV audience than the Final Four championship game (I find this hard to believe, but there it is).
Kids I know pronounce Götze, Ibrahimović and Chicharito correctly. They know Portugal and Uruguay as mighty nations. They think you should probably go with a 4-3-3 if you want to attack and a 4-4-2 with a holding center mid if you want to hold a second-half lead. They understand goal difference, and they think Luis Suarez is haunted by demons. Most of them are pre-teens.
Here’s what I think:
- I think it’s fun to live in a world where Bosnia and Hercegovina’s national team has the same impact as the American League Central.
- I think Spanish football managers who look like Bond villains are more fun than college football coaches who look like substitute teachers.
- I think it’s cool that there’s a generation of American kids who don’t laugh (very much) at the name Kaká.
- I think it’s great that West Bromwich Albion is as relevant to the American sports landscape as the Milwaukee Bucks.
- I think it’s nice that we have a book, too, and I would like to thank Mr. Dempsey for writing it, even though he will spend an extra Clausura in fútbol purgatory for leaving out the Portland Timbers.
It means we’re part of the world in a way that we didn’t used to be. We have our own sporting culture, and I love it—the pennant race is a grand thing, the bowl season is a quirky fun mess, the Super Bowl is a kick in the ass and March Madness is as much fun as you can have watching TV. But I like that American sportscasters no longer wait for Serbian riots to show soccer highlights or smirk when they have to say long names. I like that a bunch of American kids screamed like Beatle fans when they saw Bayern Munich leave their bus for the MLS All-Star Game. I like that America has changed in this particular way. I like that we’re closer to the rest of the world than we used to be.
Now that we love it too—and suffer its frustrations and humiliations, just like Ghana does, and just like Mexico does—we might just be a more worldly people. Maybe, maybe. Now, we go to the World Cup like Costa Rica goes to the World Cup…hoping, dearsweetJohannCruyffhoping, and when we lose, when we find out that we’re not as good as Belgium, we do what Costa Ricans (and Greeks, and Algerians, and Koreans) do:
We wait for the fall, when Real Madrid—and West Bromwich Albion—are on TV again, and we get up to watch.
I used to have West Bromwich Albion to myself. I thought I liked it that way, but I am much happier sharing.