Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Being A Lions Fan Led Me To Never Walk Alone

So many conflicting emotions . . .

I’m about to admit something that will make half of you wrinkle your noses up at me and shake your head like you just caught me taking a shit in your bed or seducing your dog. The other half of you will be split into two camps: one will clap me on the back and bid me welcome to their ranks while the other will just shrug and wonder why in the fuck I am writing about this particular topic. But it’s March and it’s either this or talk about labor issues some more and that would just end up making me want to throw a chair through a window or set my car on fire and then drive it into the Le Brea Tar Pits, so fuck that. I know, I know, you’re all on the edge of your seat waiting for this stunning admission (Just humor me and agree that you are, okay?) so I’ll just get to it: I really, really like soccer.

There I said it. There is something unwholesome and un-American about that. I feel like just by admitting that, I metaphorically allowed a whole platoon of redcoat British soldiers to storm into my home and rifle through my underwear drawer and defile my wife. (I’m not actually married but sometimes I do like to wear a dress and put on some lipstick and put on a little smooth jazz and . . . shit, back away! Back away!) The Great Willie Young would be so disappointed with me. But to hell with all that. Those are the piddling complaints of a stubborn and tiny mind, the sort that gets hard to Toby Keith songs about putting boots in asses and who suck at the teat of the true American religion, which is America itself and more specifically, the fetishized ideal of American exceptionalism.

Before I get too carried away here and end up getting dragged away in chains by the ghost of Uncle Joe McCarthy, let me back up and say that there are a lot of valid reasons for not liking soccer that have nothing to do with xenophobia or anything like that. There isn’t a lot of scoring, there is a ton of flopping and embarrassing histrionics and – perhaps most importantly – there just hasn’t been a lot for most Americans to root for over the years.

More than anything, I think it’s that last point that explains the American refusal to embrace soccer. It’s not ours and so fuck it. I think that’s the general idea. It’s kind of a visceral mistrust because we didn’t create it and therefore it must be inherently inferior, but I am veering too far towards all that bullshit about American exceptionalism again and so I’ll try to twist it back to something more innate than that: it’s hard to root for something that you were not born into.

Most of us have been fans of a sport or a team for as long as we can remember. We didn’t choose to start rooting for some shitbag franchise that would only break our hearts over and over and over again in what is essentially a quasi-abusive relationship. You think I woke up one day and said “Hell, I think I’ll start cheering for the Lions. That seems like a lot of fun.” Fuck no. I was born into this psychotic circus and I will die a part of it too. It is inextricably bound to my DNA and there is nothing I can do about it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy it. I do. But it’s a complicated enjoyment that really requires a whole post of its own. Hell, to be honest with you, that is what I have been trying to explain in the three years or however long it’s been that I’ve been writing here. It is the fundamental question that lies at the heart of everything that I do here. Why the hell do I follow this team?

And that’s the key: this team. I am a fan of football, but more than that I am a fan of my team, the Detroit Lions, and everything else about football that I love and hate has grown from that. Everything is an offshoot of my team fandom. The league itself exists as a mere construct for my team to compete within. Football is the game that the team plays. The players are knights of a kingdom that doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to people like me. It is a kingdom of my heart and it is forever. That’s a powerful thing, and that’s what drives the success of professional football in this country. People aren’t so much NFL fans as they are fans of teams that happen to compete within the NFL. That is obviously overly simplistic – there is a whole symbiotic chicken or the egg element to this whole argument – but at its core I think that it’s correct. You can use this same line of thought to explain fandom in any of the major sports. And really, that line of thought explains why they are major sports. There is an inborn sense of fandom that comes with supporting a team that is generational and powerful and in some ways it transcends mere sport and becomes a communal sort of thing. It is primal and vaguely ridiculous and it’s something that you just can never get with golf or tennis or Nascar or anything like that. It’s also powerful as hell.

Which brings me back to soccer. Over the years I have always been intrigued by soccer. I mean, why wouldn’t I be? I am a naturally curious dude and if billions of people swear by this shit like it’s a religion then there must be something to it, right? But there was never anything there for me to grab hold of and claim as my own. And therefore there was never a way in for me. The soccer world was effectively cut off from me and millions of people like me. The only time we got a glimpse into that world was every four years when the World Cup came around. I have always loved watching the World Cup, even when I was a little kid, if only for the sheer spectacle and the utter pregnancy of every moment. It was life or death, laughter or tears, rioting and screaming and absurd nationalism. It was ritualized war.

But there were two problems: the United States never had a team worth a damn, so I always felt like an outside observer, like some cracked anthropologist studying a fascinating and bizarre world he could never be a part of, and second, the tournament would always end and then there’d be . . . nothing. Of course, every so often people would rumble about a new American soccer league but it was always stale and antiseptic and I would watch and try to get into it, but it just wasn’t the same. It was a forced fandom, a ragged bone thrown to people like me who wanted to keep watching soccer. (Oh, and fuck calling it football or futbol or whatever. I have to draw the line somewhere and that’s it.) It was pointless and sad and eventually soccer would just fade from my mind like so many other stupid fads.

But every time it comes around – every time the World Cup takes place or every time the U.S. plays an important “friendly” (These terms are all fucking ridiculous by the way. And yeah, yeah, when I complain about shit like this I am about one step away from humming those goddamn Toby Keith songs I was bitching about earlier but fuck it, these are complicated times and I am a complicated man.) – I find myself getting sucked in more than the last time and it takes longer and longer for it to fade after the event itself ends.

There are several reasons for this, I think. One is that, obviously, I actually enjoy watching the game on an aesthetic level. I love that it is a game of continuous flow and action. Once you understand the whys and strategy of it all, it’s genuinely compelling to watch, like human chess. I know a bunch of you just scoffed at me but I don’t fucking care. This is just how I feel. Leave me alone, you brutes. And then there’s the fact that there are no commercials or anything like that, which is a stark and welcome contrast to the NFL’s wringing of every advertising dollar from our withered souls. I mean, we’ve all bitched and moaned about the NFL’s maddening and damn near insulting policy of embracing this sequence: touchdown-commercial-kickoff-commercial. That shit is infuriating. And it’s not just the NFL. I was watching the Michigan-Duke NCAA Tournament game (Fuck Duke forever, by the way.) and there was one sequence in the first half that saw two possessions run in between commercial breaks. Two fucking possessions! That’s why all our games are 18 hours long. But soccer moves quickly, it doesn’t stop and two hours later the whole thing is over with.

Another reason for soccer’s inexorable march to the glorious fields of my heart is that the US National Team has actually risen to the ranks of “Worth a damn” after years of being just a comical reminder that soccer is most definitely not our sport. And that’s been the hook. That’s where the rootability comes into it. (Yeah, I just made up a word but fuck it, language is fluid and I will rewrite the dictionary before my day is done.) Finally, people like me had that door to the inside crack open a little bit. Finally, I could feel what everybody else around the world feels, instead of just watching it like a curious Leakey or Dian Fossey staring at wild apes. And I have to admit it was kind of intoxicating. This past World Cup was the ultimate example of that. The U.S. was actually there. Their games were important and I could feel the tension of the moment and I was hooked and I could watch it all unfold live.

And that right there is the other big reason why I finally fell for soccer. You see, the U.S. has had some success in the World Cup before. In 2002, the U.S. shocked Portugal and managed to move on in the tournament but it existed as only a rumor, a far off tale from another land because the damn game was on at, like, Never O’Clock in the morning. It was impossible to make a connection to any of it because I never saw it happen live. Therefore, I never really felt it. Instead, it was “Oh hey, that’s cool, I hope they keep winning.” But that was about it. When they eventually were knocked out by Germany in the Quarter-Finals, I remember feeling disappointed, but it didn’t really resonate because who the fuck were these guys, you know?

Still, that tournament piqued the curiosity enough so that when, eight years later, the US was ready to make another run, people were primed to fall for it. And fortuitously, this next run happened during the waking hours, with ESPN furiously peddling it to anybody who could get themselves in front of a TV. This wasn’t some rumor in the dark. No, this was something that was happening here and now and we could watch it all unfold while it was happening and we could feel it. Even after the US National Team was knocked out – which I felt just like I feel when one of the teams of my birth is knocked out – I kept watching. I knew who all the big time players were. I knew who was good, who sucked, who was just lucky to be there, etc. I was emotionally invested and suddenly, I was a soccer fan because the World Cup had effectively acted as the same construct for the US National Team as the NFL does for the Lions. Even after the Lions lose – or whoever your team might be – we keep watching because we become interested and invested in everything else that is happening in that league. It was the same way with the World Cup.

But then it ended and . . . shit. Back to square one. But instead of trying to force myself to get behind some shitty MLS team that I didn’t care about only to fade away within a couple of weeks or months, I decided I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted the real thing. I wanted to be invested year round – at least on some level. For me, my primary team will always be the US National Team because that’s what hooked me in the first place. It’s kind of a weird thing because the US National Team only plays games of consequence every four years. Everything in between is just a prelude to the real event, an exhibition game meant to remind everyone involved that eventually the games will matter once again. I love that. It makes everything feel grandiose and important. But I also don’t want to sit around for another four years waiting to care again. Sure, sure, I follow what’s happening with the team in the interim, but it’s not all that different from what I’m doing now with the Lions. It’s the offseason and I’m just hunting down news and speculating. Imagine doing that for four fucking years.

So, obviously, I need something else, something for the vast wilderness which exists in between meaningful national games (or matches or dilidyhoos or whatever the fuck the soccer fetishists demand they be called). Realizing this, I announced my intention to start rooting for an English Premier League team. (Yeah, I know the proper term is “club”, but, well . . . fuck off.) Why? Because, honestly, that seems to be the closest league that I can identify with culturally that plays at an elite level. I mean, they speak English. That may be a shockingly simplistic thing to say, vaguely xenophobic and definitely stupid, but fuck it, who cares? It’s true. It’s important to me to actually be able to, you know, follow what the fuck is happening. It doesn’t do me any good to have to read blogs via Google Translator, which would probably give me shit like this “Pierre ball net through the day won was time the next gotten they will be,” you know?

The world has shrunk in such a way that it is now possible to follow pretty much anything if you want to badly enough. I want to, but I also want to actually feel something of a connection. I don’t want to just randomly pick some team and then watch them like a curious anthropologist. I have done enough of that when it comes to soccer. I just want something simple and understandable and relatable. It might make me a terrible person if I feel like that is more achievable via an EPL team rather than some Italian team or some team from the Somali Pirates League, but I don’t give a shit. Anything else would be pretentions and far, far too precious. I mean, I would just look like a jackass (a bigger jackass anyway) if I pretended to have an emotional stake in the success or failure of some random Hungarian club. It just wouldn’t work and I would be instantly suspicious of anyone who says that it could. They are fucking lying, if not to others than at least to themselves.

It is vaguely ridiculous to be talking about shit like that when here I am trying to explain my newfound allegiance to a particular EPL club. (Yeah, it’s not exactly a secret since I have been yammering on about it on twitter and other places so chances are you already know who I ended up picking, but leave me the conceit of suspense here, alright?) After all, I am not English. I am an American. Yet, there is enough natural flow between the land of Shakespeare and my homeland that there is a cultural affinity, you know? I watch some British TV shows. They watch some American shows. We watch each other’s movies and we can have a conversation in the street without it looking like a conversation between a baboon and a donkey. (Those are some hilarious conversations, though, let me tell you . . .) We understand each other better than we understand most other people. On some level, we are in this fucked up thing called life on Earth together, inextricably linked and bound in a way that most cultures aren’t. We are Western Civilization and all that means to the both of us. It’s just the way it is. So be it. There isn’t any real use arguing about it.

And so, with all that in my mind, it came time to pick an actual club. I wanted an organic reason. I didn’t want to just pick some random club and start following them. I wanted to feel it first. And so I originally broached the subject to a collection of fellow psychotics and terrible people I like to think of as e-bros, who are fairly well versed in my various eccentricities and degeneracies and right away I was pointed in the direction of Liverpool. This was intriguing because the dude who pointed me in this direction is actually a fairly recent convert to the Church of the Lions. He is an all-around awesome dude who sometimes comments here as “Hill Heeb”, and he has loved Liverpool in that same Bound by DNA way that I love the Lions. Therefore, it seemed like kind of a natural fit, but I didn’t want to just jump into things. After all, I didn’t want to be one of those dudes who supports the best teams just because they’re the best. That shit is odious. I didn’t want to end up rooting for the EPL version of the Cowboys, you know? And the thing about Liverpool is, well, they kind of have that reputation.

And so I dithered and prevaricated (That phrase “dithered and prevaricated” was used over and over and over again in a book I recently read about the War of the Roses, to the point that it became funny and I swore I would steal it. Therefore, this is an in-joke that makes sense to exactly one person – me, and I apologize for making you read this horseshit parenthetical.) and I took the question to twitter. Right away, I heard from my good buddy Ty, who said that he was being pushed towards a particular club too, and wouldn’t you know it, that club was Liverpool. Quickly, I was bombarded by reader and Lions fan djdobbo, yet another Lions/Liverpool fan, who seduced me with stories about new hotshot Liverpool star Andy Carroll’s utter drunken degeneracy. Ty then chimed in with a little factoid that seemed to point to the whole thing being fate: it seems that he was in possession of a Liverpool hat and on the inside of said hat was a tag that said “Made in Detroit.” And just like that, my search was over. Both Ty and I committed like top college prospects to Liverpool.

That whole explanation might be stupefying and ridiculous but that’s the way it happened. That was the way it had to happen: weirdly and organically. Aside from the hat, I feel that it is fate that Liverpool was virtually the only name that was thrown my way during my search. I heard it over and over and over again. You can judge me for this, but I don’t care. I am not bandwagoning my way onto anything. I chose Liverpool because I feel like Liverpool chose me. It’s that simple.

Of course, after the fact I was denounced by my boy Joe but I expected such things. I knew there would be repercussions to throwing my support behind Liverpool, with its rich tradition and its legion of fans. But to hell with all that, I want to support a club that actually has a chance every once in a while, you know? I don’t need to suffer for the sins of some poor ass club that will never do a damn thing. I am already a Lions fan, for fuck’s sake. No one should ever judge me for this. Besides, my boy Joe? He’s a Yankees fan. Yeah, I know!

The very next day, I feel like I was given a sign that everything was as it should be when Liverpool beat Manchester United, who are basically the Cowboys/Yankees/Galactic Empire all rolled up into one hateable club. Fuck yeah. Of course, I immediately took credit for the win, but inside I felt like it was another weird sign that this was the way it was supposed to be. I also found out that one of Liverpool’s best players is Luis Suarez, who you may remember as the Uruguayan dude who fucked over Ghana in the semi-finals of the World Cup by batting the ball away from the goal line with his hand in the final moments. Everybody shit on him, but fuck it, he did whatever it took. Fuck sportsmanship. That’s my kind of dude. Also, it turns out that he is kinda awesome and he might already be my favorite player in the world, although I have also fallen in love with Andy Carroll but that’s more because of his off the field exploits.

Anyway, so there you have it. I am now a fan of the Liverpool Football Club (Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m already being assimilated and brainwashed into using their terminology, but what can I say? These are strange and terrible times and these things happen.) What does any of this have to do with the Lions? Fuck if I know. But it does have to do with the nature of fandom and being a Lions fan requires you to either be completely oblivious to such a thing so that it doesn’t destroy your soul or to be overly introspective so that you can explain the horror of it all to yourself so that it doesn’t, well, destroy your soul. So I feel like being a Lions fan put me in a unique position to understand what I was looking for so that when it found me I could embrace it. That is kind of a weird sentiment, tinged with a vaguely bullshit Zen philosophy, but it’s true. I couldn’t just pick a team. I had to let a team pick me, but I had to be open to it. And being a Lions fan allowed me to understand how to attune my fan energies in the best way so that this would happen. No, I swear I’m not high as fuck right now.

Fandom is a weird thing. When it’s true, it’s something that can’t really be explained. There are no good reasons for being a fan of a particular team. It’s just something that is. I needed to understand that if I was going to accept my fandom of any other team or club or whatever the fuck you want to call it. Being a fan of the Detroit Lions made that possible. In a weird way, I was drawn in more than one way to Liverpool by my fandom of the Lions. Some might say that this is just a fabricated excuse, meaningless and stupid. I would just say that that is just the nature of fandom. Fate, complete bullshit, call it what you want. I don’t give a shit. I’m a fan of the Lions and consequently I am a fan of the Liverpool Football Club. Go Reds.


HSOMGF said...

This article may be your best yet. I totally agree: football is football and soccer is soccer.

That being said, I just can't get into it. I've followed it from time to time, as my most recent ex (yes, THAT ONE) was from the UK and followed the hapless Cardiff City club, from the Championship league. I asked him once why he was such a fan and he told me it was because he hated Swansea (their archrivals) so much. That was it. Hatred of another club. OK. I read recently that the Cardiff City club was forced to sell land holdings around the city in order to keep the club going financially. That struck me as all sorts of fucked up. Anyway..

Yeah, fandom is a weird thing. I'm a NY Giants fan because my father and my entire mother's side of the family were all Giants fans, so I just fell into it. Now, 30 years later, it's second nature. Like you said, it just IS.

Neil said...

Thanks. As much as this post was about soccer, it really wasn't. It was more about fandom, which is one of my favorite themes to hit on and hopefully that's universal enough to overcome the inherent SOCCER WTF? sentiments of anyone reading.

And I totally understand why someone can't get into it. I'm never gonna be one of those dudes who is constantly all HEY WHAT ABOUT SOCCER COME ON YA'LL because that shit gets annoying.

Anyway, thanks again. As always you are too kind.

HillHeeb said...

Awesome read man. Aside from my obvious biases, it's interesting to see a Yank take on sawker.

It's also funny to see how my Lions fandom follows the inverse path to you finding Liverpool. My first football game was the Pats/Giants SuperBowl. After that I was hooked, but I needed a real team to root for. The next year Brady was deaded, so I sorta took on the Pats with Cassel. It seemed like a cool underdogish story, and since NFL Quarterbacks are basically the story of the season, Cassel's story seemed like the most interesting. But it was hollow and boring, and I had no real interest once it became clear that they were Really Good with the underdog. It wasn't Willie Beamen, basically.

So I decided to pick the opposite. I'd already had a soft spot for Detroit. Demos for PS2 NHL games always featured the Wings, and they were my hockey team. I liked the music from Detroit and of course, Robocop. The Lions were the obvious choice, and I liked the idea of following a team from the bottom to the top (yeah man, it's coming).

And Millen getting fired, hiring a young coach to build a franchise with, drafting Stafford, all these things that I didn't really understand made total sense to me. I was going to watch the next great Quarterback mature with my team, under the tutelage of a smart coach and good leadership from on top.

It felt good to finally celebrate a win, and even better when the Lions went 4-0 to close out this season, beating the Super Bowl Champions in the process. It also felt right to suffer through the Calvin Johnson rule, the Failure Demons returning to hell with Stafford's shoulder, and those fucking Jets escaping with their limp dicks between their legs. It felt like I was going to endure at least some tough times before I got to the good stuff. And it still feels like my team, more so than even the Wings or the English national soccer team (fuck them, IMO).

It's probably too long winded to get into, but there are a ton of parallels between the two organisations as well as huge differences. Matt Millen = Tom Hicks. Rod Marinelli = Graeme Souness. St Calvin = Steven Gerrard. SUUUH = Luis Suarez. The fans are equally passionate in my experience, yet without the assholery I encounter with Steeler fans.

The more you watch of Liverpool, the more you get attached. The more I watch the Lions, the more I want to watch them. I think the type of team you follow in any sport kinda links you to certain ones. The Lions have struggled through adversity and had to build from the ground up. From that alone, I can't imagine you as a Manc, nor could I see myself following the fucking Jets. There's just some sort of mutual appreciation that draws you in.

Ty said...

Tremendous. You nailed the hell out of my very own feelings with the USMNT and Liverpool . . . this World Cup is what did it for me and soccer and the USMNT will always be my true team. Also, when Detroit gets a top flight team, look out.

BUT, I'll happily drape myself in Red for now, and when it comes to English football, for ever.


PS: "You'll Never Walk Alone" is as good of a song as "Gridiron Heroes" is, and even more treasured anyway!

Neil said...

"The more you watch of Liverpool, the more you get attached. The more I watch the Lions, the more I want to watch them. I think the type of team you follow in any sport kinda links you to certain ones. The Lions have struggled through adversity and had to build from the ground up. From that alone, I can't imagine you as a Manc, nor could I see myself following the fucking Jets. There's just some sort of mutual appreciation that draws you in."

This makes a lot of sense to me. I can't quite explain why but it just does, which I guess kinda proves your point. It's kind of eerie that the first FOUR people I heard from when I first started asking around were all Lions AND Liverpool fans.

Neil said...

Thanks, Ty. I know I'll get drawn into MLS if - or when - Detroit finally gets a team. There seems to be a real groundswell of support and when that day comes, it's kinda awesome that you will be able to say that you played at least some small part in helping to create the sort of environment that allowed it to happen. The more you've written about a possible Detroit franchise, the more I've gotten into the idea and I think a lot of other people feel the same way. Keep on banging that drum and you'll find more and more people marching to that beat. You're doing noble work, my man.