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Hello, New World!

This Thursday night, 14 April 2011, the Timbers Army will sing the official “Star Spangled Banner” at a stadium in the heart of Portland, Oregon, and the local football club will play its first home match in America’s top division. The Timbers face Chicago’s Fire. The match will occasion large amounts of beer consumption on premises and in the surrounding neighborhoods, and play its own small part in hastening the decline of the traditional nation-state.

A transfiguring fireNot long ago, a knowledgeable friend alerted me to the existence of a treatise, delivered by a fellow student in one of his undergraduate sociology classes, titled something like: “The Timbers Army: Constructing a Local Counter-Identity Using Global Trends.” My first reaction was that this was, by virtue of its intense undergraduate-sociology-ness, ridiculous. The second was to remember that I have written pieces to that exact thesis several times. I wrote mine in the dialect we professionals call Journalism-Simple-Talk: small words, lots of M-dashes, a “nut graf” that begins with the phrase “At a time when…” Which means my efforts were less academically valid but perhaps no less overblown.

However, let us stipulate that Timbers fandom has become a cultural phenomenon. And further that this phenom has indeed become integral to a certain conception of Portland identity. (And oh, yon identity: so distinct, so widely held in various forms, it warrants its own cable sketch show, apparently. The problem with this show is that a documentary version would be funnier.)

Let us accept that Portlanders have evolved an essential and irreducible Portland-ness. And let us accept that while this quality may, indeed, root back to the two hirsute New Englanders who named of “The Clearing” on the banks of the Willamette by a best-two-out-of-three coin-toss series, it has (the quality, not the river) experienced a period of rapid change and, let’s say, articulation in the last 10 years or so. (Something, blah-de-blah-blah, to do with computers, no doubt.)

All this given, Portland, Soccer Citythe Timbers have become a microcosmic but extraordinarily vivid expression of this urban culture, one that marks our city as a small breed apart in its own country: like the billboard says, a Soccer City.

What I’m saying here, basically, is that we have constructed a local counter-identity, using global trends.

The thing is, everyone seems to be doing it. Not long after the Timbers landed a Major League Soccer franchise, the club plastered the city’s trains with adverts with the tag line “FINALLY WE’RE ON THE WORLD’S PITCH.” The preamble was a roster of famed footballing cities: Barcelona, Milan, Liverpool, Madrid. Not, note, “Spain, Italy, England.” Consciously or not, the Timbers sought to associate themselves with cities, not countries—and to slice off a little of Barcelona’s Catalan righteousness and Liverpool’s “We’re not English / We are Scouse” bristle. Club football has become the catalyst for a specifically urban and metropolitan brand of patriotism. Inside soccer stadiums, we all think like ancient Greeks.

I have written at some length elsewhere about what you might call the “urbanization” of MLS fandom after the league’s semi-abortive ’90s effort to woo suburban soccer families. In his book A Season With Verona, Tim Parks amply documents the many ways in which Italian football serves as a hideout for the fugitive city-republic identities of that wobbly nation’s constituent parts. “VERONA: CITY AND STATE!”—it makes a cool stadium banner, but sort of crazy-sounding politics, until you consider that a major party in Italy’s governing coalition wants to unravel the country. Maybe Verona supporters are just ahead of their time. Football is the sport of cities. A fan can already squint at a world map and dissolve the national borders to see a scatter of football’s urban heat-islands glowing against a dark and formless countryside.

Portland coined its “Soccer City” nickname back in the swingin’ ’70s, when, in a fit of shag-haired whimsy, America experimented with soccer in the way it also experimented with polyamory in the same era. For a few seasons, the first incarnation of the club packed the same stadium where the reborn version plays this Thursday.

But the effort was premature; the proper civilizational conditions did not exist. Asking Americans to embrace soccer in the ’70s was like asking people to adopt a religion based on a sketch of a temple. (People in the ’70s did that sort of thing, so it worked for a while.) Plunking a “foreign” sport in a recession-prone, somewhat isolated logging town in one of the nation’s most culturally homogenous states was a little like asking the good people of today’s Des Moines to support a professional cricket team.

Now things are different. The last ten or so years have ripened the urban soccer audience—not just in Portland, but in most of metropolitan America. We have our semi-imagined Premier League allegiances, indulged on Saturday mornings; we have our long Champions League lunches. We can all tweet our minds out on our SuperPhones. Facebook avatars were essentially invented to show off hometown club scarves. It’s a niche-sized audience, maybe—but if you’re a sports franchise owner and your niche happily fills an 18,000-seat stadium about 20 times a year, you probably don’t stay up nights worrying about world domination.

In his doorstop football history The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt argues that soccer enjoyed its first wave of mass popularity thanks to displaced rural workers flocking to Industrial Age cities. Adoption of the local club—whether that meant AC Milan or Boca Juniors—provided a handy shortcut to city pride, replacing whatever age-old peasant identity had been left behind.

A post-modern version of this process unfolded in Portland during the new Timbers’ ten-year gestation in the lower divisions. Flocks of relatively unattached young people moved to Portland from all over the country and world. For a sizeable number, Timbers fandom provided a creative, malleable, loud way to become Portlanders. Passion doesn’t have to be old to run deep.

A few weeks ago, I live-interviewed author Greg Lindsay about his book Aerotropolis at a Portland book store. The book is a big ball of reportage about globalization, scaffolded by the thesis that airports have become the galvanizing feature of the modern city. One of Lindsay’s most interesting ideas is that the world’s air-linked trading cities now have more in common with each other than with their hinterlands—that Hong Kong and London enjoy a closer fraternal relationship with one another than either does with rural China or England.

Lindsay sees this same process of cultural and economic affinity playing out in the United States. He was pleased to visit Portland for the first time, he said to me, because as a resident of Brooklyn, he feels like he already sort of lives in Portland. (In the distempered aftermath of the 2004 presidential election, the writer Dan Savage hammered out the partisan version of this theory in his “urban archipelago” manifesto.) A lot of American soccer fans already live in little city-to-city confederacies of the mind. The Timbers Army and Chicago’s Section 8 have enjoyed amicable diplomatic relations since 2005. The ascension of Portland and Vancouver to join Seattle in the top flight brings the informal Cascadia Cup—a little football Hanseatic League of mutual disdain—to MLS.

I’m sure the nation-state, with its steampunky brass fittings, will be with us for some time, pro forma if nothing else. But at a time when (HA! Got it) the world’s peoples are flooding into cities, cities are lashing themselves together in fluid and ever-shifting networks of commerce and migration. The political and economic forms of the old world may not be particularly relevant to a new world in which an airport and a football ground are two essential pieces of infrastructure.

Football, the most global sport, has ironically become the vessel for the most fervent and eccentric localist impulses. In a world of unacknowledged city-states, our clubs allow us to rally to the flags that matter.

Zach Dundas is the author of The Renegade Sportsman: Drunken Runners, Bike Polo Superstars, Roller Derby Rebels, Killer Birds and Other Uncommon Thrills on the Wild Frontier of Sports, which can, and should, be bought by you, this instant.

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Hello, New World!

by Zach Dundas · April 14, 2011

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