The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Darkeness Before Dawn

I was thinking about a huge post on English and American soccer culture, ESPN, Ian Darke, Hicks and Gillett, the Red Sox, barristers in powdered wigs, Steve McQueen in a Mini Cooper, teenaged Beatles, and Bristol Rovers fans lying down in Leadbelly’s graveyard, but the concept got too unwieldy: Make a list of the places where American culture and English culture intersect, even one that includes only the most striking or the weirdest or the most iconic vertices, and pretty soon you wind up with a galaxy instead of a blog post, and you spend an hour debating whether Edmund Burke gets photographic sidebar representation. So now I’m thinking about a medium-sized post on all that stuff, and Steve McQueen waits for another day.

The question is: What’s happening to the relationship between English and American soccer culture? I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks, since ESPN announced that they’d hired Ian Darke to be their new lead soccer commentator, thus tasking a certified chip-eating Englishman to wield adverbs and control John Harkes during U.S. national-team games. As you probably know, the move was widely applauded by American fans, who, whether as a result of unhealed Dave O’Brien scarring or Pavlovian deference to a domineering mother-culture, tend to see English announcers as a step up from the stable of American alternatives. (That includes ESPN’s own JP Dellacamera, who’s never going to retire as the commandant of West Point if he keeps getting passed over like this.)

Among the cheering Americans in Arsenal track jackets, however, there were a few serious dissenters, including some prominent writers and bloggers who felt that the move was not just a mistake for ESPN, but actually harmful to the development of American soccer. Right after the announcement, I wound up in a really interesting Twitversation with Jason Davis from Match Fit USA—who, along with Brian Blickenstaff and a few other writers, has argued that American soccer culture in general is too in thrall to England, that we give English authorities too much credit for their accents, borrow their terminology rather than using our own (“pace” vs. “speed”, etc.), and essentially risk morphing into a nation of twee scarf-wearing copycats having weekly dress-up tea-parties at boutique theme-park pubs. (I’m paraphrasing.) Importing an Englishman to call national-team games appeases Anglophile fans, but it also reinforces the idea that soccer is an essentially foreign sport. And that, in turn, repels the winnable Todd Palin demographic and risks giving American kids an inferiority complex.

At the same time, of course, Liverpool fans were burning American flags, Manchester United was somehow losing vast piles of money while similarly shaped piles mysteriously turned up in a bank account in Florida, the Premier League was in year five of an unbroken gaze of admiration directed at the cut of the NFL’s jib, and a general feeling was at large among a subset of English supporters that the word for what was going wrong in their game was “Americanization.” Just as some U.S. fans felt that England’s role in the game’s past was dominating the American present, in other words, some English fans felt that their domestic leagues were sliding down the cliff of a commercialized American future. They think we’re trying to colonize them, and we think they never stopped colonizing us. If this were a New York Times piece, which, praise Cruz Beckham, it isn’t, this would be the moment when I’d grit my teeth and write “two countries divided by a common sport.”

The weird thing is that there’s a lot of truth to both these critiques. My attitude toward other soccer fans is, I hope, pretty live-and-let-live—the game is vast, exists for pleasure, and can accommodate any number of styles of engagement—but even I find it off-putting when a guy from Kansas can name-check Herbert Chapman but doesn’t know who Stuart Holden is. (American soccer history is interesting, loser.) And while some of the anti-modern, terrace-throwback panic burbling through the English game strikes me as misdirected and Luddite, I realize I might feel differently if it were my medieval folk traditions that were suddenly being entrusted to the safekeeping of Richard Scudamore. I love TV, but it’s not like I trust these people.

What I wonder, though, is whether this mutual sense of hostile cross-colonization is a sign of real conflict, or whether it’s simply a sign that our two soccer cultures are growing closer together and struggling to get used to the change. That is, absent some fantastic Trading Places scenario that no one told me about, America can’t dominate English soccer culture and be hopelessly ground beneath its heel at the same time. What we could sloppily call globalization—meaning, roughly, access to one another’s media, economic interpermeation, and easy movement of players, among other things—has obviously and overwhelmingly shrunk the world and made the soccer scene more transnational over the last decade. Doesn’t it stand to reason that two English-speaking countries with volumes of shared history but not much previous sports overlap would suddenly find themselves exerting a far greater mutual influence?

I’m not saying that the consequences of that influence would necessarily, on either side, be entirely good. It might still hold back American youth players not to have more independent soccer traditions, and the word “franchise” might still set fire to Blue Square Bet South. But at the moment, David Beckham and Thierry Henry play in MLS, Fulham fans cheer Clint Dempsey from a pub named after Brian McBride, the Red Sox and Liverpool are trying to have the same owner, Sky Sports feeds show up on Comcast channels, ESPN is broadcasting soccer games in the UK, American presses are co-publishing English soccer books, Jonathan Wilson is writing for Sports Illustrated, the Mail is running Grant Wahl excerpts, Ian Darke is calling Premier League games for ESPN, and a multinational English-language blog culture is thriving among writers who, at least as far as I can tell, don’t give much thought to one another’s accents before arguing or agreeing or extending each other’s points on Twitter. Ten years ago, much of that list would have seemed incredible. So even if cultural proximity means we’re all saying “pitch” instead of “field”—in the same way that we all say “love” in tennis—I think it might also mean that we end up with something more genuinely complex, co-created and shared than the model of joint unilateral invasion would imply.

I’m sure the era of trans-Atlantic sports culture, if it ever comes to exist, will have its own problems. Tom Hicks continues to speak English and can more or less afford a plane ticket. But it sounds really interesting, too. I’m not dreading it.

He would, but only as a representative of paleo-Whigdom in general.

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Darkeness Before Dawn

by Brian Phillips · October 13, 2010

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