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America's Revolt From Britain -- on the Soccer Field


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It may not have been a great leap forward, but the U.S.'s 1-1 draw on Saturday against England was an important result, maybe the first step for Americans to emancipate themselves from the dulling influence of English "football"** in this country.

For the majority American fans—and players—English soccer has an overpowering allure. The English Premiership is readily available on TV, has the most money, and is the best entertainment, the most fun. Its reputation was bought in the last 15 years, not earned (though due respect to Nottingham Forest and Liverpool in the 1970s and '80s and Manchester United recently, too).

It's widely considered the best league in the world, but that's debatable and subject to change as the European economy achingly fluctuates. The fact is, English players and coaches—while there are some good ones, great ones even, especially on their current national squad—usually aren't as good as they think they are. After its 1966 World Cup victory on home soil, they've only made one semifinal in 10 World Cups and no European Championship titles. On the club level, since the Heysel Stadium disaster 25 years ago, English clubs, for all their hype (and highly-paid foreign stars), have only won Champions League, formerly the European Cup, three times.

But in the U.S., the English game, its sensibility, and its rituals have a waiting and willing sycophantic audience. It starts from the vocabulary, "pitch," "pace," "the middle of the park," "kickabout" "supporter" (something Hampton Sides touched on recently in The New Yorker) but veers further into gesture: how American fans clap at games, how they display their scarves, how they chant.

In conversation, when many an American fan asks whom you support (not who you "root for"), it's assumed you're going to say an English club, and one in the Premiership, not, say, the downtrodden Charlton Athletic. To answer the question with Shalke 04 or Sampdoria or PSV or Espanyol or River Plate is to end the conversation. It's like blasting John Coltrane's "Ascension"; it will clear a room.

You would think that America being America, a beacon of immigration, we would inculcate and embrace elements of various soccer cultures. In our own hemisphere alone there's the greatest soccer tradition of all, Brazil, in addition to Argentina, and the under-appreciated Mexico. The other major European leagues, which are also regularly available on TV offer other rewards. The skill and technique in Spain's Primera Liga is as good if not better than the Premiership, but I've yet to meet an American fan, or, rather, a supporter, of Deportivo de La Coruña, only Barcelona or Real Madrid. Italy's Serie A, for all its financial problems, is a weekly master course in tactics with brilliant coaches, one who now is in charge of the England national team, Fabio Capello. Holland is famous for developing and nurturing young talent. Germany's Bundesliga is, for me, as good an entertainment package as the EPL—full stadiums, great atmosphere, attacking soccer—and less predictable. And let's not forget the Balkans; the Yugoslavians were not known as "the Brazilians of Europe" for nothing.

Consider Michael Bradley, the 22-year-old emerging defensive midfield star on the U.S. team. He is the son of coach Bob Bradley, who once played for and coached at Princeton. At age 19, Michael went to play in Holland, for Heerenveen, and two years later in Germany. Presumably his father—a student of the game who watches videotapes of the great AC Milan teams of the 1980s—advised him and advised him well. He didn't try to push him to England, which seems the dream for every American player, even as the domestic league, the MLS, improves every year.

There's a lot to learn from English soccer. It's hard not to. I did from books, magazines, the old VHS tapes (of "Match of the Day"), John Motson sounding like the drunken voice of God, playing in pick-up games, in the conversations on the street with strangers with Portsmouth (Pompey!) and Norwich fans. But enough. England's way is just one of many.

**(For those still hung up on this word "football/soccer" debate, let's defer to Simon Kuper—a Brit who's one of the finest writers on the game in the English language—and page 158 his latest book Soccernomics. He writes:

Many people, both in America and in Europe, imagine that soccer is an American term invented in the late twentieth century to distinguish the game from gridiron. Indeed, anti-American Europeans often frown on the use of the word. They consider it a mark of American imperialism. This is a silly position. "Soccer" was the most common name for the game in Britain from the 1890s until the 1970s. As far as one can tell, when the North American Soccer League brought soccer to the Americans in the 1970s, and Americans quite reasonably adopted the English word, the British stopped using it and reverted to the world football.