Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Fan is a Fan is a Fan

On Saturday morning I was a bundle of nerves. After dragging myself out of bed at an hour I never would have seen if left to my own lazy devices, I was soon swinging back and forth between depression and elation. Broken by the Adebayor goal, healed by his idiotic red card, redeemed by the Mertesacker goal and the 3-1 half time lead, exasperated by the Bale goal, furious at the Gunners for killing time in a 4-2 game at home against 10 men, and finally overjoyed at another 5-2 win in one of the most contentious rivalries in sports. All of this was happening on a couch in a living room in Boston and as I lay there jumping from one induced emotion to the next, I realized how invested I was in a soccer team from London: a city I had never lived in, studied in, or even visited. And I wondered how that was possible.

Some sports loyalties are easy to explain. If you grew up in the general area of a city, odds are you're a fan of teams from that city. People from Boston are Red Sox and Patriots fans, people from North Jersey are Knicks or Rangers or Mets or Yankees fans, people from Kansas who never even went to the school are still Jayhawks fans, and so on. Then there are the familial ties: even if a parent doesn't live in their hometown any more, odds are they're going to raise their kids to follow the same teams they did. My uncle grew up just outside of Milwaukee and though he now lives in Central Pennsylvania, you better believe that my cousins are diehard Packers fans. These connections make sense. They run through your home or through your veins. They are direct ties to a feeling of community or family. They are what sports are based on.

For American fans of European soccer, it's a different set of ties altogether. Though there are those among us who can claim to have lived in European City X for part of their life or have a parent who has long be a diehard of one particular club, the vast majority have none of these "automatic" connections. We have the privilege, and the burden, of choice. We can choose a club because we like a player than plays for them, or because maybe we took a vacation in a city one time, or just because we like the color of their kits. We can choose based on whatever we like and this is very freeing. However, it also comes with a scarlet letter, a badge of dishonor that can always be brought up to discredit our fandom. After all, how can I really be a true Arsenal fan? I've never been to Highbury or Emirates. I didn't grow up watching Anders Limpar or Alan Smith. I have no idea what the breakdown of neighborhoods in London is like and have that city's presence instilled in me. I'm just a longtime international soccer fan who liked the way a young Spanish kid played and started following his team. How can I count myself among those who grew up with the Gunners as their local club?

I might be the wrong person to answer that question, actually. I'm from Connecticut and I count myself a fan of the Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New York Giants. As well as the UConn Huskies, of course. I can give you good reasons for all of these associations. I can tell you how much of a sports hero Kirby Puckett was to me growing up. I can rattle off notable failures for the Giants at quarterback (well do I remember the Danny Kanell Era). I can talk with the best of them and I've been a fan of these teams for a long, long time. But the truth of the matter is that if someone from Minnesota heard me talking about the Twins and asked where I was from only to hear "Connecticut" back, he or she would be well within their rights to look down their nose at me and wonder why I was encroaching on their turf. I understand this completely, by the way. As someone who has been a hockey fan since watching the Whalers growing up, I'm sure I wrinkled my nose at a few Sully-Come-Latelys that sprung up when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Some people can't stake as much of a claim as others, either out of participation, geography, or genetics. There will always be, to some degree, classes of fans.

I don't see this as anything to be ashamed of though. I didn't grow up in Minnesota. As a matter of fact, I didn't grow up anywhere that can reasonably claim to support one particular team over all others. Oh well. I've been a Twins fan since I was six years old and I'll continue to be a Twins fan even if they can't develop a single pitcher whose fastball tops out over 90 mph. To me, that's the baseline of being a fan, the floor of staking any kind of claim: you stay a fan. If you're jumping around from team to team always making sure that you're rooting for a winner, you're not a fan of a team, you're a fan of a sport. Which is fine in its own way, but be aware of it. When you're rooting for the same team year-in and year-out, you have friends that come along with that culture. You've got bars that you frequent or websites that you check. You build a community around a team whether you're from there or not. So while I'll be at a bar in Boston for today's Montpellier match instead of anywhere in North London, I comfortable with that. I can never be what some fans are because I wasn't born with it, but I can sure as hell still be a Gooner.