Radio Atlantic: For Love of the Game

In this episode of Radio Atlantic, the staff writer Clint Smith talks about the complicated feelings he has for soccer, and which teams and players shaped his love of the sport.

Part of the appeal of the World Cup is watching countries’ finest soccer players represent their nations. For many fans, though, it doesn’t have to just be root-root-root for the home team. The Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith will be cheering for the U.S., but he will also have his eye on Senegal.

Smith’s attachment to the game is personal, stretching back to when he first started soccer playing as a little boy. In this episode of Radio Atlantic, Smith talks about the joy of soccer, the overt racism in the game, and why he’ll be cheering for the team of a small country in West Africa.

Tape in this episode comes from FIFA, UEFA, ESPN, and TRT.

Listen to this episode below:

Clint Smith: Hey there. I’m Clint Smith, staff writer at The Atlantic. And joining me for a couple special episodes this year about the World Cup is my fellow staff writer and fellow Arsenal fan, Franklin Foer. What’s up, Frank?

Franklin Foer: Come on, you gunners.

Smith: Come on. So, Frank, there’s a little bit of age difference between us and not much.

Foer: Not much. It’s all in your head.

Smith: What is age? An imaginary construct. But if we are to lean into that imaginary construct, for me, in the ’90s, I was a kid who was just beginning to fall in love with the game. I started playing for the first time in 1994, when I was 6 years old. And I’m curious what your relationship to the game was like. When I was discovering my love for the game, and making my way through grilled-cheese sandwiches and rec-league soccer, you were thinking about the game in much more sophisticated terms.

Foer: Don’t let the grays in my beard confuse you, Clint. I’m not your grandfather. But my defining World Cup experience, I think, was 1990, the Italia World Cup. I was going into tenth grade and I fell in love with Cameroon. And they had a player, Roger Milla, who was the indomitable lion himself. He was an aging player, and he just kind of single-handedly took this team and carried it through the tournament.

Smith: And very underrated in the history of the game. Doesn’t get his due.

Foer: Totally get doesn’t get his due. Nearly knocked out England in that tournament. That was the game that I was kind of hanging everything on, and I just so desperately wanted Cameroon to knock out England. And that English team had a lot of great players on it. There was something about him and the way that he played.

And to me, the game has always—I’ve always loved the political undercurrent of it all. I view it through the lens of anti-colonialism. And that was always the thing that kind of unlocked the game for me was that I could latch on to the fact that it was a morality tale. But I loved what I was seeing in the stands. And for me, the contrast between the passion of supporters there and the crowds that I would experience at an American sporting event just left me envying just the sheer authenticity of what I was seeing, not just on the pitch, but in the stands.

Smith: So during the 1990 World Cup, I was 2. So I don’t have much of a memory of it, unfortunately. But for me, in the ’90s, the World Cup I remember the most is the 1998 World Cup. I think I was 9 years old, 9 going on 10.

And I was sitting down and I had this grilled-cheese sandwich. The Louisiana heat and humidity was like 120 degrees outside or something. And so I was inside sort of getting respite, and we didn’t really watch a lot of soccer in my house. I was the first person in my family to ever play soccer. I still didn’t watch it, but that changed in ’98. I was watching South Africa play France. You know, I caught the tail end of the game and they had this sort of 20-year-old super fast, lightning-quick winger named Thierry Henry.

Foer: Ah! Makes the heart go pitter-patter.

Smith: Pitter-patter. And there’s this incredible moment at the end of the game where, you know, it’s like the 90th minute where in stoppage time he collects the ball, he nutmegs the South African defender, pushes it past another one, runs around them, dinks it over the keeper like feathers over the goalie, does sort of like a Roger Federer drop shot where the ball, when it hits the ground, it has this backspin. And it wrong-foots another defender and then it goes in and the crowd goes crazy.

And I’m sitting there with my grilled cheese and it’s getting cold and my mouth is agape. This happened all in like five seconds. And the thing that I loved, too, was that he looked like me. And this was a moment when, you know, especially in Louisiana, especially in the ’90s, there weren’t a lot of Black kids playing soccer. I think I was either always one of two, if not the only Black kid on my team.

For me to be able to look up and see a player who was so exciting and surrounded by teams like the South African team and the French team was a really special and really affirming thing. Even though I didn’t necessarily have the language for it in that moment, it was so important for me to see him, because it allowed me to see or project onto him a version of myself. And I needed that.

So now, we’re in 2006. I just graduated from high school, about to start college, and I have a far more developed understanding of the world. And one of the things that I’m beginning to more fully understand is the way that the history of racism is baked into contemporary American life.

And one of the ways I think I began to more fully understand that was because the year prior, Hurricane Katrina had swept across my hometown. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater. We were so far removed from any notion of a post-racial society. And part of what shaped my increasing consciousness around what racism is and what it looked like and how it manifests itself wasn’t just Katrina, but it was also the previous few years of watching some of the things that had happened in the global soccer community.

I remember seeing Samuel Eto’o, who was this Cameroonian player who played for Barcelona, being taunted by fans, being called a monkey. There were Black players who had banana peels thrown at them. There were Black players who were physically assaulted. And it just felt like it kept happening. And sometimes what happened is that these players would try to walk with you and say, I’m not going to allow myself to be subjected to this.

And it created this big hoopla. And UEFA, the European Soccer Federation, said that they were going to be more stringent in punishing racist acts, both from players and from fans. But it was becoming clear that even though for so many of us, soccer is a sort of sanctuary, there were limits to how much of a sanctuary it could be.

When I was a sophomore, we played this high school, Dutchtown, and we ended up winning. It was just one of those moments where your feet feel like your lungs feel full and you just feel like anything is possible when you touch the ball. I dribbled past like a few of their defenders and then across into the box and one of my teammates headed it in and really solidified the victory for us. I was enthralled.

We were moving to the next round. We would eventually win the state championship that year, our school’s first-ever boys’-soccer state championship. I was just excited. And then the game ended and I walked over toward the stands where our parents were, where some of the other kids from our school were. And people’s faces seemed incongruent. Why does everybody seem uneasy or stressed or anxious?

And I would come to learn later when I dribbled past a bunch of defenders and crossed it into the box, that one of the folks in the stands on Dutchtown’s side, they said, Take that nigger out.

My dad turned around. He tried to see who it was who said that. There was this situation in the stands. And I’m struck by how I didn’t even notice when I was on the field. But I remember the sort of feeling in my body, even just being told that that had happened. The stress that felt like it stretched out its tentacles across my whole body.

And so when I saw these Black players in Europe being called monkeys, having bananas thrown at them, being called all sorts of racial slurs and epithets, I realized that no matter if you were playing on a high-school field in Louisiana or if you were playing in a stadium in Barcelona, none of us were immune to that.

And going into the World Cup in Germany, that was a big fear that a lot of people had, is that some of the big moments of sometimes violent assaults of racism would take place in Germany. And obviously, when so many people think of Germany, they think of the violence that the German state has enacted on the proverbial other. With the World Cup coming up it felt like the tension was heightened with some of the things that were happening on the field.

So in 2009, I was a junior in college, and I decided to study abroad in Senegal. I’d taken French my whole life and still wasn’t as good as I thought I should be. I wanted to go to a French-speaking country. But I wanted to go to a place that I didn’t know I would go otherwise. It’s almost cliché to talk about it this way, but like, I went there and it changed my life. I mean, it was my first time ever on the African continent.

And it was such an interesting moment, too, because Obama had just been elected in the United States. And when you show up in Dakar, I mean, his face was everywhere. His face was on buses. It was on cars, it was on bumper stickers, inside of shops. It was in barber shops, it was in grocery stores. And I think there was a sort of diasporic proximity that they felt to him. It was an interesting experience because I’m the descendant of enslaved people. Clearly, I am someone of African descent.

Living in Senegal was also this moment where I gained a clear sense of how soccer was really this connector across nationalities, across cultures, across lines of difference. I remember you show up in Senegal, and you bring a soccer ball to the beach, and you’re immediately 20 people’s best friend. You know, everybody’s barefoot. The waves are sort of sliding up and down the shore. You’re playing as much against each other as you are against the tide. It was just so, so free.

And that was so different from my previous soccer experiences, which, you know, I played competitive soccer as a kid. I always thought I was going to be a professional soccer player. And it was the first time in a long time where I was able to play free of any expectation, free of any underlying sense of competition. I was just kind of learning to love the game again on its own terms.

So now it’s 2010. A year after my time in Senegal, the memories of that time are in so many ways still very fresh. And the World Cup is being held in South Africa. And what you should know is that an African team has never made it past the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Every four years, five African teams qualify for the World Cup. And as of 2010, only two African countries had ever qualified for the quarterfinals. None had made it to the semifinals. But in the 2010 World Cup, which was held in South Africa, Ghana was playing Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and they had a real shot, and it looked that way, the game was tied. It was tied 1–1.

Then a minute was left in the game. And ultimately Ghanaian captain Stephen Appiah has this header cleared off the goal line by Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez. But then another Ghanaian player heads the ball toward the goal and it looks like it’s going to go in. It looks like Ghana is going to be the first African team in the semifinals. Is this an historic moment on the African continent? Maybe [an] African team makes it to the semifinals. Maybe they’ll make the finals. Maybe they’ll win. All of these thoughts are going through everybody’s head as they watch this ball about to go into the net.

But then Luis Suárez, the same player on Uruguay who had blocked the ball from going in before, he blocks it again—but this time it’s with his hands. And so there’s this wild moment where all the Ghanaian players are going crazy. Everybody’s like, you know, they can’t believe what they just saw. It’s like the No. 1 thing you learn about soccer when you’re a kid is: Don’t use your hands. And he very explicitly used his hands.

So he gets a red card and he gets sent off. And Ghana have a penalty kick. And so now everybody’s like, All Ghana has to do is score this penalty kick. And they will be the first African team in history to make it to the semifinals of the World Cup. Everybody in the stadium in Johannesburg is cheering for Ghana. There’s, again, this sort of diasporic proximity, this collective sense of Africanness. And for those of us who are Black Americans, we’re watching and we’re cheering for the proverbial motherland. And so, Asamoah Gyan, this main forward, he scored two penalty kicks in the in the World Cup so far.

He steps up, kicks the ball, and it hits the crossbar. And it doesn’t go in. And all of the Ghanainan players drop to their knees. They can’t believe it. The whistle blows, Uruguay can’t believe they’re still in this. And then they go on to win the game. Just a few minutes later on penalty kicks. Africa’s best chance, maybe in history, of making the World Cup semifinals are just gone.

This moment, it hurts so much because you just see how close they were. What would it have meant if Ghana had won the World Cup in Africa? But we’ll never know. And now, you know, Luis Suárez, is this huge villain. Yeah, it sucked. It really sucked.

And so this year, in the 2022 World Cup, there’s Ghana, Morocco, Cameroon, Senegal, and Tunisia. Senegal is the reigning African champion. They won the Africa Cup of Nations not too long ago. They have the reigning two-time African Player of the Year, Sadio Mané, who previously played for Liverpool, now plays for German powerhouse Bayern Munich. And I think Senegal has a really good chance to make a very solid run in this tournament. I mean, they’re the champions of Africa. They have one of the best players, not only in Africa, but Sadio Mané is one of the best players in the world. And so, who knows?

This might be the moment where an African team makes it past the quarterfinals. Maybe it’s the moment where more than one African team makes it past the quarterfinals. So I would love nothing more than to see Senegal make a strong run and to see Ghana get what they deserve from that World Cup where they were robbed of a trip to the semifinal in so many ways. But it’s going to be exciting either way.

You know, it’s interesting. My kids until recently, I think, very much felt like soccer was daddy’s thing. But I took them to an Arsenal game and, you know, we got the kids their chicken nuggets and french fries and pizza. And we were watching this new generation of players from all over the world. It felt so real to them. It felt so three-dimensional to them. They understood the sort of human texture of the game in ways that they hadn’t before. Right? Before it was this thing that only existed on TV, and now it was this thing that was real. You could feel the stadium vibrating under your feet. You could smell the person’s french fries next to you. You could see the players on the field right in front of you celebrating. Now, my 5-year-old, especially, is so into the game. I mean, it’s almost striking how much this moment impacted him. And I told him, I was like, Oh yeah, and the World Cup is coming. And he was like The World Cup is coming?! I mean, I didn’t even know he really knew what the World Cup was, but I am very excited to be able to share that with my kids.

And one thing that’s really different about the 2022 World Cup as compared to the 1998 World Cup when I started watching, over 20 years ago now, is the fact that the United States men’s national team has far more Black players than they previously did. But now, I mean, there’s so many Black players on that team. I mean, I remember in one game during World Cup qualifying, I think there might have been eight Black players out of 11 in the starting lineup.

I remember I texted Adam Serwer and Adam Harris, two staff writers here at The Atlantic, and I was like, You see this? Like, this is, I mean, it’s amazing. And they’re all like in their early-to-mid-20s. So it very much represents this new generation of Black players who have come through the system and who represent, I think, a new set of possibilities for the game. You know, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, Antonee Robinson—that makes me really excited for 9- or 10-year-old kids who might be watching the World Cup for the first time like I did back in 1998, who are going to see so many different versions of themselves. 2022, more Black players are playing the game than ever before, and that represents something really exciting. And it represents the country that we live in more accurately than previous teams.