Listening and learning

Of the many truisms in discussions about soccer, one certainly is that fans of English football do not want to hear suggestions from anyone from the United States about how to improve the game.

And while that’s certainly an understandable reaction, it’s also a fairly short sighted one. 

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In a particularly engaging article last week, Guardian columnist Aaron Timms noted that Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly “raised the hackles of some of English football’s most annoying people last week when he suggested that the Premier League could learn from America.” What was most intriguing about his article—and I’ll leave it up to you to read it as the details are not important to my observations here—is that Timms ultimately argues that it, of course, the Premier League could learn from ideas abroad. (and vice-versa, of course).

I have to admit, thought, that when I first hear that Boehly suggested—amongst a number of ideas—that the Premier League should have an All-Star game, much like is done in Major League Baseball (where Boehly’s other professional team plays) as well as in Major League Soccer, I cringed. My discomfort was not so much because of the idea—indeed, Twitter warriors were quick to note a number of times when such an idea was raised by Europeans themselves without  a note of resulting pearl clutching—but because, speaking from the position of an “American,” I knew exactly how he would be heard.

Yet another loud mouthed Yank trying to fix things he didn’t understand.

It’s a weird phenomenon that is participated in by people who love soccer on both sides of the pond, as well as those who despise it. There is a certain “certainty” that any idea coming from the United States about soccer must be a bad idea, and, conversely, that any attempt to change MLS’s structure to match Europe is a misunderstanding of what makes soccer work in the States.

Take the very word “soccer.” It is a commonplace now, amongst English commentators as well as others in the world, to make fun of those in the United States for using the very word “soccer” to refer to the sport.  But talk to any Englishman of a certain age and they will tell you that up until the 1970s, the terms “soccer” and “football” were used fairly interchangeably in the UK.  “Soccer,” deriving from “Association Football” was of course an English neologism at a certain point in history.

Why did they stop using the term? Well, with the rise of the gaudy rock-n-roll circus that was the North American Soccer League in the 1970s (folks in the US had no way to call it anything but soccer, given the prominence of gridiron football here), the English turned their nose up at the term. Suddenly, “soccer,” an English term, because an idiotic word used by Americans. Constantly pointing out our use of the word—one, again, that we learned from them—works as a way of saying we don’t know what we’re doing, and that we should stay away from their national treasure.

And the English are not the only ones with this attitude. There are multiple fans of the Premier League who were born and bred in the US (and have barely if ever left the nation) who take on this air of “authenticity.” Indeed, a number of friends wrote me poo-pooing Boehly’s idea, saying he didn’t understand football and should just be quiet. 

These are the same folks who, when any idea to alter the rules of “football” are raised (e.g., “They should stop having PKs as a way to figure out a winner in the knock out stages of a tournament and perhaps do hockey style penalty shootouts”) get uptight and laugh at whatever uncultured American developed this idea (despite the fact that a number of Europeans who played in the old NASL thought it was an interesting idea that should be taken back to Europe).

On the other side of the coin, those who are completely tied to MLS often deride any idea that MLS might learn from Europe. While I understand the impossibility of adding promotion-relegation to a league that developed so differently than European leagues, it would be quite easy to award champions based on total points at the end of a season rather than by a playoff system (not saying it’s better; I’m just saying it could be done). Suggest this to an MLS fan, however, and they often go ballistic and tell you to take your Euro-snob ideas to hell with you. 

“Eurosnob”= a term that very much highlights the “don’t tell MLS what it can learn” attitude that is the inverse of the “Everything Americans suggest is laughable” European.

The fact is, however, that it’s not as if soccer/football has ever been a single, stable game. Over the course of its history, the very idea of substituting players (and the number of players) has altered (with the US’s NASL first developing the idea of multiple subsitutes). The definition of offside, as much as we still argue over it, has changed multiple times over the course of the game. 

My point is, “Football” is not a platonic idea. Europeans have always been smartly willing to change and adjust the game to keep it more interesting (just like every sport). So, it’s not as if when someone comes up with a new idea, the sport needs to be protected from ALL CHANGE. It has change, and changes will continue to be fine- tuned over time.

I guess regardless of how you feel about something like an All Star game (and I actually think a skills challenge with PL stars would be a blast), ideas from anywhere on the globe shouldn’t be shot down immediately because of who is suggesting them.

The ridiculousness of nationalism (sometimes in the guise of American exceptionalism) is at work here. It’s a silly and childish mind-block that we all seemingly fall into at times.

The next time you’re in a discussion with someone about change, maybe take a moment to consider the idea and not where it’s coming from. Just a minute.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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