24 March 2005

How I became a fan.

Why soccer?

I didn't grow up a soccer fan. That just didn't happen in Indianapolis in the 70s. Sure, we knew about the game. But there were no kids' leagues for soccer, and essentially no school teams. They did start a team in 8th grade... but it was kind of bizarre, as if they'd started a curling team or a netball league. The NASL was not followed in the heartland, and other than that we might only hear about soccer if there was a stadium tragedy.

College was a bit different. (California is a bit different from Indiana.) I became more interested in sports in general, and started hearing about the Cal soccer team. We even tried playing a bit with friends. But still, it wasn't on my radar screen; life was all about the holy trinity of baseball, football, and basketball. I came back to Indiana after school, enjoying the familiar sports.

So what changed? Five things.

First came 1994. The World Cup was my first opportunity to watch soccer on TV. I didn't watch that many matches — maybe three or four. I'm sure it started some Saturday afternoon when I was bored. It wasn't instant love; I wasn't hooked from the start. But what did happen is that I realized the game was more exciting than I expected. I knew little about the rules (offsides?) and nothing about the teams. But I enjoyed it. The players were fantastic athletes. The goals were surprisingly exciting due to their rarity. And the gameplay itself was surprisingly improvisational. In the end, I wasn't hooked... but I was intrigued.

Second, a couple years later, I got a job with a company that had an intramural soccer league, and got recruited by one of the teams. Originally I saw it as a chance to blow off steam after sitting at a desk all day. But as I got into it, I found that I really enjoyed the play. It helps that soccer has a fairly gentle learning curve; I could be useful fairly quickly (at least in an intramural league) but there were all kinds of things to learn. And it was most definitely not boring; each play, each game was different and unique. (And it was really good exercise.)

Third, a good friend recommended that I read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. It is a fantastic book, and after reading it I went looking for more by the author. At the time, he hadn't written much, and so I quickly found myself reading Fever Pitch. The book is relentless in its description of soccer fandom as a pathology, and so it probably says something weird about me that I grew even more hooked. But I did, and among other things the book planted the name "Arsenal" deep into my skull.

Fourth, we hired in a new guy into the department, this "David Landry" person you see posting here. By this time I was manager/captain for our intramural team. So YES, I did ask about his soccer background during his interview process, and YES, I probably did salivate when I found out he played goalkeeper. But NO, I actually had no influence on the hiring decision, and so there's no claim that I acted improperly. At any rate, this provided me with a first outlet for discussing soccer, and we quickly expanded on our shared interest.

And finally, in March 2002, I moved in with my girlfriend. Not typically an occasion for increasing one's devotion to sports, but we did decide to get digital cable. Which happpened to carry Fox Sports World. And THAT meant that I could finally see soccer. Lots of it. Premiership games, every week, and sometimes live. The first thing I did was to look for Arsenal games (thank you, Mr. Hornby), and they obliged by going out to win the Double. Following that, we had the 2002 World Cup, which provided for some great games. I found myself setting my alarm clock for 3AM to catch the early games. By the time we all gathered at 6AM to enjoy the entertaining Brazilians defeat Germany, my fate was sealed.

In the scale of things, I'm not a huge fan. I only get the chance to see Arsenal live maybe one game out of three. Overall, I'll probably watch three or four games a week, and even then I may skip some parts if I already know the outcome. When I can, I'll go to the local chippy to watch games live, with a good crowd.

Sometime I'll post my thoughts on why soccer entertains me so much, relative to the usual American sports. But the bottom line is that I like it a lot. And I expect I will only get worse in my fandom. I have a year left to get to Highbury to see an Arsenal match, before they move to Ashburton Grove. Already I'm trying to plan out an excuse for the trip...

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