Ed. note: The English professional soccer season begins this weekend.
Three years ago, the great ESPN sports columnist Bill Simmons wrote a story called "Choosing My EPL Team." I didn't read it at the time, though I should've. (I was just getting started with the English Premier League around then.) But a few weeks back, Chris Toy of Studs Up told me about the story—and the tremendous acrimony it caused among British football fans. So I went back and read it. It's well worth checking out.
Simmons's piece strikes me as a smart, funny, and sincere (if sometimes superficial) attempt to ask: How can an American football fan develop the same sort of the complicated, impassioned allegiances the Brits have for their teams?
It's an important question for the American fan. Maybe the most important.
We tend to grow up with our pro sports teams (being from south central PA, I'm disposed toward the Orioles, Eagles, and 76ers), yet few of us were raised with any awareness of the Premiership. Today, English football—and since I'm talking about the English game, I'm using "football," not "soccer"—is more easily watched than ever in the States (hopefully, coming soon to ESPN!), and I'll gladly contend that it's the best sporting television available. I regularly find myself watching three or more matches per weekend. Yet doing so creates a strange predicament: Though I spend more time watching the Premier League than any other sport, I don't really have a team.
So, as Bill Simmons did a few years back, I'd like to enlist your help—savvier American fans, rabid Brit football partisans, novices like myself—in selecting one. Of course, I lack the clout (and, by vast amounts, the readership) Simmons has. But I vow to make up for it with commitment. Simmons has a lot of territory to cover on Page 2 and was never really able to keep up the pace of Premiership coverage he intended to. (He also made the mistake of choosing Tottenham and then, earlier this year, showing up on World Soccer Daily to say he's considering switching to Liverpool. This particular heresy caused some message-board commenters to suggest castration.) Here at GQ.com, I'll be writing regularly about the Premier League (moreso in the fall and into next year), hopefully doing some player interviews and breaking some news as time goes on. If you want to think of this exercise in purely self-interested terms, here's a chance to have a major US men's publication covering your team.
Over the next couple of weeks, I'll post reader comments and emails to this site to spur the discussion and debate. I plan to pick my side in October, right when GQ.com relaunches, and describe my reasons for doing so. In the meantime, please educate (or encourage, or shout at, or humiliate) me! Either register to comment below, or email me here.
The idea is to set up a fan-driven online resource for other Americans who come to the game and want some advice on choosing a side. And before you get started on that 1,000 missive about why you've been a Man U supporter for life,
A bit of background:
I became a fan of the Premiership at the beginning of the '06-'07 season, when, after watching nearly every televised World Cup match, I discovered that my local cable network carried Fox Soccer Channel and that I could continue with my obsession. At the time, I found myself rooting for Chelsea, in part because they were on FSC all the time and in part because that '06-'07 roster—Robben, Drogba, Essien—seemed like an All-Star team of all the players I'd enjoyed watching in the World Cup. But mostly, I simply didn't know any better. I knew nothing about Abramovich or the Special One; I just liked those players and how they played.
My good friend Greg straightened me out. An avid, longtime Arsenal supporter, Greg (who's American) taught me the songs, the slurs ("Cashley Cole"), and introduced me to a much broader understanding of the football culture than what you get just watching a few matches each weekend. This Arseblog post he forwarded me on the eve of Arsenal's Champions League defeat this May is unlike any I've seen composed by a fan of American pro sports:
Remember, the guy or girl to your left or right is an Arsenal fan. The boys in red are your team. Our team. United are the enemy. United would kill your mum. They'd run over your puppy and then point and laugh. They would make you listen to Phil Collins. They would insist on putting cloves on everything. They would dip their pizza in ketchup. They would offer you a cup of coffee then serve you chicory. They would force you to watch Tom Hanks films.
Out of respect for Greg's enthusiasm, I signed on. And for the past two seasons, I've followed Arsenal more closely than any other squad. When they're on, they're absolutely spellbinding to watch. And win or lose, I watched nearly every Gunner match last year.
Lately though, I've come to doubt my allegiance (sorry, Greg). It's not because the Gunner's performance has been underwhelming—though I'm sure some might, not unreasonably, call me a fair-weathered. It's because I've lately developed a nagging suspicion that being an American Arsenal fan is sort of a twee, precious thing to do, like claiming Belle & Sebastian as your favorite band or knitting your own custom supporter's scarf. (I mean this only for American fans who've adopted the team in the post-Fever Pitch era, but it may be true of Brit Gooners, too). I love to watch Arsenal play, but they seem a little like the Wes Anderson version of a football team: All cutesy build-up, no point. Your team should not be an affectation. Rooting for them, as an American, smacks of trying a touch too hard.
So going into this season, I'm vowing to finally commit to a side. I realize that choosing a team in this sort of public manner opens me up to all sorts of criticism. I am prepared for a lashing (especially of the, "Fucking Americans, you've ruined our economy and foreign policy so leave our game alone!" sort). But the point of doing so is this: While my affiliations with Chelsea and Arsenal have been shallow, my connections with US sports teams run deep. (I'm a lifelong Orioles fan, for example, even though they've not won a World Series since I was too young to remember it; I root for the Birds because my dad's family is from Baltimore, and my grandfather helped build Memorial Stadium). I want to find a similar connection to a Premiership squad. You don't have to spend long wading through football message boards to find someone saying "You don't choose X team; X team chooses you." I agree with this idea. But we American fans, so far removed from the pure football culture, have a hard time being chosen. I consider this project a way to make it happen. I'm open to any ideas, but there are a couple of prejudices I bring to the process:
I like teams with American players. Call me patriotic, narrow-minded, or just typically American, but I know who I'll be supporting in South Africa next year. I want our national team players to play a lot, at the top level, and I'll root for the teams they play for.
If there's a viable hereditary/geographic reason to pick a side, I'd be all for it. In the States, with a few (generally inexcusable) exceptions you grow up supporting the team you'll support for life. But it's trickier for Americans with the Premiership because most of us come to the league late in life, without an apparent connection to any particular side. It occurs to me, though, that being of British decent (though distant), there may be some geographic connection that I'm not currently aware of. My family name is Kirby, which is supposedly a variant of Kirkby. That name, I've read, originates in Lancashire. I also happen to be from a town in Pennsylvania named York (which is right next to Lancaster, PA). I realize that these connections might be tenuous, but if someone could prove to me that my English namesakes have rooted for, say, Blackburn for years, I'd be swayed.
Slight bias toward larger clubs. I don't make it to the UK often and I like the idea of being able to see my team play live every once in a while. The bigger teams tour the US every once in a while; chances of Chelsea playing at Giants Stadium in the summer are much greater than Stoke City's.
Like Simmons, I want a team that'll stay up top. I know it's lame to say I want a successful team, but the bottom line is that Championship matches do not air in the US. It'd be dispiriting to declare my allegiance and then never be able to watch my team.
And some initial thoughts on teams:
Arsenal and Chelsea: I've enjoyed watching these teams and have flirted with declaring myself a supporter (and buying the scarf and jersey to wear to the bar for those occasional 7:30am matches). But I've had my doubts about both. (Less so about Arsenal—in fact, it may be the case that having a crazy-enthusiastic, die-hard mate like Greg is the best reason to pick a team.) Arsenal and Chelsea fans, feel free to weigh in and convince me. Or curse me as a traitor.
Man. United: Nope. In case it's not obvious: Supporting them would be like having jumped on the Chicago Bulls bandwagon in '94 or '99—i.e., right after a three-peat and the departure of the team's best player (Michael Jordan, twice). The very definition of being late to the party.
Spurs: A lot of my friends in Brooklyn are supporters (there's a great bar called Floyd that's a famous Spurs hang out), and I get the appeal of the "if the Dodgers hadn't left Brooklyn" comparison. But I play in a football league here in the city, and one of my team's (unnamed) rival sides is clearly comprised of Spurs fans—they wear the kit to every match. They're also horrendous whiners and shit-talkers, who'll call a short member of our squad a "midgety cunt" up and down the pitch and then fall over and cry to the referee when that same short player (who's damn skilled) comes in for a hard, clean tackle and wins the ball. (To be fair, the other English team in the league is also comprised of terrible whiners, but neither side is as bad as the Italian squad we play from time to time.) Anyway, their antics have spoiled me on Tottenham. Not sure I could root for the same squad as those guys.
Fulham: I like this squad. They're scrappy, fun to watch, and on FSC all the time. They've also had quite a few American national team players on the roster the last several years—Bocanegra, Dempsey, McBride—who, mysteriously, always seem to play better for the Craven Cottage fans than they do for their own country. Craven Cottage also just seems like terrific place to watch a match, which I'd love to do sometime.
Everton: I play keeper. And I'm a fan of US national team goalkeeper Tim Howard. I also like—and this is just my novice perception—that Everton seems to consistently field solid teams without spending money like the NY Yankees. I appreciate that.
Hull City: I enjoyed the Cinderella story of their rise to the Premiership and was glad to see Jozy Altidore sign—if he gets time on the pitch, I'll be watching every Hull game. I also understand that Hull is in Yorkshire, which seems to my Yankee brain to bear some relation to my hometown, York, Pennsylvania. Downside: High likelihood of relegation. After this season, it could be ten years before I see them again on US television. Also, manager Phil Brown may be too much of a self-promoter for my taste (though I do enjoy the fact the he gives interviews to US media outlets).
Liverpool: I rooted for them for a lot of last season when it looked like they might be the only side with a shot at taking Man. U down. I like the way they play, enjoy watching Gerrard, and my younger brother supports them (for reasons I don't really understand). But I fear the bandwagon factor may be too high, especially this season. And I agree with Simmons's assessment that there may be just too much history and passion here to just "casually" jump on board.
Man. City: I liked them more last year and the year before, when they seemed the runty counterpart to Man U. I respect Al-Fahim's efforts to bring in top-flight talent, but starting to support them now, and the very start of the '09-'10 fixtures, smacks of having one's allegiance bought.
Aston Villa: Simmons said, "By all accounts, they have the most miserable, self-loathing fan base in the EPL." I'm not sure where he got that. The Villa I've seen these past several seasons has been fantastic to watch—with occasional moments of top-flight brilliance. There's also an American owner, Randy Lerner, whose father helped move the old Cleveland Browns football (US) franchise to Baltimore, thus earning the never-ending adoration of my father's family. (He's from Baltimore, and my uncles still speak with disgust at the Colts having left town in the '80s. They're all now Ravens season-ticket holders.)
Blackburn Rovers: The first time my girlfriend heard me say the name of this team, she mistook it for Blackburn Rubbers, which really doesn't make any sense but sounds funny in a sexual way. The team is also in Lancashire, where my "people" are from. And I like their brute, head-on approach to the game—you gotta love David Dunn saying they'll "kick lumps" out of Man City's gold-plated roster this weekend.
The Rest: I've been watching for three seasons now, and these above are the squads that have caught my eye. The others? I'll gladly watch them on a Saturday morning, but I generally just root for whoever's losing, to make for a more interesting match. But I'd be happy to hear from Bolton, Wigan, Portsmouth, West Ham, etc., supporters who want to argue on behalf of their squads.—mark kirby