Soccer and the anti-hero

I cannot recall the name of my first anti-hero in soccer. I can barely recall what he looked like. But my adoration of him had a lot to do with why I feel in love with soccer in the first place.

A little over a decade ago, I was attending a PDL final that pitted the then-USL Portland Timbers’ development team against the Thunder Bay Chill. Having never been a soccer fan, I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of the game. I loved the Timbers’ supporters and have loved Supporter Groups ever since, but the game itself seemed like a bunch of grown men chasing blindly after a ball.

When someone finally put the ball in the back of the net, it was one of the Chill players. Occurring in the first half, he scored right in front of the very loud and, I thought, very intimidating Timbers Army. Rather than celebrate with his teammates, as one would expect, he ran straight in front of the Timbers supporters and began heckling them, pointing to the crest on his jersey, then putting a single finger in the air to indicate that he—and the Chill—were simply better than Portland. 

It was a transparent “Up Yours” to the fans, and they reacted accordingly.

I loved it.

What confidence and bravado that must have taken. At an away game with a large crowd pulling against you and virtually  none of your own fans in attendance, the provocation not only strikes out at the home fans but it assures that you will be the villain—the one that crowd boos—for the rest of the game. Moreover, it is a risk. You’ve made a claim about your greatness far before the game is over. And, in fact, the crowd did stay on his back every time he touched the ball. Even more, Portland did come back to win the game, providing the home fans, anyway, with a sense of revenge on that player and his teammates. 

Sure, it might have been a good game anyway (although I for sure couldn’t attest to it), but the drama of the game was inflated and heightened by the actions of this one player. 

While some will rightly point out that it takes some degree of stupidity to provoke a crowd like that, it also takes confidence in abundance, a belief that you will back up your actions with a victory.

These type of flashy, loud, brash players… these are the ones I’ve always adored in every sport throughout my life (Muhammad Ali was my first hero). 

For my money, I see far too little of it for my tastes in soccer in general, and in the teams I support in specific.

And then there was Sunday night, when our very own Christian Pulisic took the perfect penalty kick and, rather than, running into the arms of his teammate, lifted off his shirt in a moment of braggadocio, went straight to the Mexican fans, and told them to shush. His teammates could do little but run to catch up with him and let the debris and filthy language ring down upon them.

Oh my.  What a beautiful sight.

While bottles and other objects were flung onto the pitch and at the players, I was delighted at the effect he had provoked, not by the idiots throwing objects at players—they should be (and some have been) banned from future games–but by the fact that Pulisic’s actions had them mad enough to act like children.

Pulisic confidently got deep into the psyche of those fans and, hopefully, of the Mexican players. It was the type of confidence and showmanship that we—in my opinion—see too little of. Which is precisely why these moments become so important. Which is precisely why the images of these moments—think of Deuce face—become iconic. 

That photo we were all staring at Sunday night and Monday morning… I want it to be a rallying image every time the USMNT play Mexico. More, I want it to burn in the hearts and minds of the Mexican players and fans. May it burn deeply and make them overly desperate to show us up.

May it burn into the hearts and minds of the US Men and their fans, making them realize that they need to enact the swagger that must be called up to defend such moments. 

I have zero idea how much or how little Christian Pulisic thinks about image politics. Perhaps he was just doing what he did in the heat of the moment, with adrenaline burning through his veins. 

I do not know, I will not know, and, ultimately, I do not care.

One thing is for sure, however; he’s given us a heroic image to defend, and the Mexicans an anti-hero to topple. 

The fun we are going to have.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Broadway Sports Media as a whole.

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