MatchDay Memory–A Fan’s Crisis Part 1

Everyone has a story about how they came to follow their club, and as I listened to the Men in Blazers pods during the 2011/12 season, Roger and Michael would share stories from listeners (I Testify!), each relating the circumstances that led to the magic moment when TEAM X became the focus of their lives. During one episode I was struck by two things which finally crystallized from the far reaches of my addled brain: one, the passion of hosts and fans as they talked about their club; and two, the single minded nature of the supporter.

I originally started writing this post with the statement: “Passion is something that is in short supply in my life.” Not true. I am full of passion, it is just simmering below the surface. If you hit one of my hot button issues—the length of American sports seasons, video technology, George Michael, some movie I hate/love—then you will be met by the fire of a thousand suns. It’s there, you just have to engage the right topics.

Obsession is something that comes and goes. I’ll hear a band or see a movie or some new thing and totally get into it . . . until the next new thing. I’m not obsessed about Oasis or Tarantino or The Wire, but at certain times in my life that’s all I would talk about. I used to be obsessed about sports, Kentucky Basketball, Michigan Football, MLB, NFL, NBA, you name it, I was into it. I would live and die by results, would shun social functions to watch games, would study the minutia of the stats. In other words, when I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, I could EMPATHIZE.

But something happened. During my angry, lost, non-materialistic phase, I concentrated on being a better person and important things (nature, being productive, blah, blah, blah) and sports were shoved to the background. When I snapped out of that and back into my true self, a selfish, introverted prick, with a bitterness smoldering just under the surface, who also happened to be a husband and father and leader of men and women, the fever for sports returned but had mellowed.

Yes, I still made time for games and gathering info and playing; I even started a soccer dedicated blog that is fueled by discipline and focus despite the fact that it is really just for me. But if life gets in the way—family commitments, community events, house work, time to relax for that matter—then I miss the game and watch the highlights (or not) later.

As for the nature of the supporter, I realized I have gone about it all wrong. One person, one team, right. Probably the closest I got to being a true supporter was living in Lexington, Kentucky and UK basketball. I went to Rupp Arena as a child and was in awe, and in Lexington, all they talk about is basketball, it’s a bigger part of the culture than religion or politics.

When I first started following soccer, I didn’t understand that you picked a team or a team picked you and that was that until the end. I began following a team, another one in another league caught my eye and then a third. Now it’s become unmanageable. Time (to watch, to read about, etc), and club conflicts (1999 Champions League Semis, 2003 United US Tour, 2009 CL final) are the biggest factors.

In the beginning, I supported Manchester United but the more I got into the game, the more I poured into learning, I ended up picking a team in three different leagues until I spread myself too thin. Now I don’t really follow one team but casually observe three. The other concern is that I follow three giants of European football, so I’m labeled a front runner. Yes, I support three of the most successful teams at home and abroad, but no, I’m not a front runner as I will explain.

I played soccer all my life, each fall and spring, running around with kids from my neighborhood, but never connected beyond that—World Cups, European sides, NASL. That all changed when my best friend started telling me about a team from England called Manchester United. He would tell me stories of Alex and Kanchelskis and Schmeichel and a player named Eric Cantona, and he couldn’t control himself when he told me how the Red Devils won their first title in 26 years in the spring of 1993. After years in the wilderness, United were finally back on top.

This was followed by the Double in 1994 that included a 4-0 demolition of Chelsea in the FA Cup Final, but it was in 1996 that I truly fell in love. That was the season where the Reds roared back to catch Newcastle and then Cantona won the FA Cup Final with a stunning strike against Liverpool. Little did I know that United would enter an era of unprecedented success—ruling England and winning in Europe.

1996 was also the year that I started following the Old Lady of Italian football. I became interested in Juventus because of Roberto Baggio. He was my favorite player of USA 94 and when I found out he was on this team from Italy, I started following them. Of course he was transferred to AC Milan after the 94-95 season, but I heard about this young player named Del Piero, so I stayed with the Black and Whites. I watched almost every match during their dramatic run to the 1996 European Final (I missed a lot of class), which culminated with a win over Ajax, and I was hooked. Ravanelli scored the opening goal from almost no angle and then Jugovic struck the winning penalty in the shootout to finish off an amazing night. I was working for the government in Birmingham, AL during that summer and had a little extra cash, so I splurged for the jersey of the European Club Champions.

While I was rewarded with a successful stretch that included several scudetti and three more European Cup Finals, the preceding years had been a little barren: no scudetto since 1985 (three times runners-up), two Coppa Italias. Then in 2006 Calciopoli hit. I followed them as best I could in Serie B and the emotional return to the top flight, then the immediate return to the Champions League with great results against Real Madrid before the unfortunate knockout by Chelsea. The following season saw a sickening loss to Bayern Munich and a poor second half that sent them into a mediocre shame spiral from which they have only now just recovered.

FC Barcelona entered my life in the late 90’s. My first exposure to the Blaugrana was their demolition of Manchester United during the 94-95 Champions League Group Stage. I was stunned when my best friend told me the score and figured this team had to be pretty good. Little did I know that I had just missed the Dream Team and their first European Cup triumph in 1992.

Due to limited TV coverage, the first time I actually saw them play was the 96-97 UEFA Cup Winners Cup Final, a drab game decided by a Ronaldo (the original one) penalty kick. When I started watching them consistently a couple of years later, van Gaal was in the charge as he reshaped the team with several Dutch players to win their first La Liga titles since the Cruyff’s Dream Team five years earlier. During these years, ESPN would show a Spanish game on Monday afternoons, which were must viewing for me, and I would reschedule soccer practice so that we could watch the games, with matches involving FCB involving mandatory participation.

I am often asked why I don’t follow MLS. I had a fleeting interest in DC United when the MLS started, and in that case I was front-running (three MLS Cups in the first four years). Plus they had the best jerseys in a sea of Nike disasters.

So that’s how came to follow the teams I follow. Anyway, the key word is follow. I don’t go as far as to say support because I feel as if those or two different things and my next post will consider to deal with that conflict.

——

Check out part 2 of this post here.

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