Soccer: It’s always been ours

If we are shaped by our history – and we surely are – then new accounts or retellings of that history have potential in reshaping who we are and what we become.

And while that is true in general, it constantly picks at my mind in how I think about soccer and the soccer communities we join and shape.  In Brian Bunk’s new book, From Football to Soccer: The Early History of the Beautiful Game in the United States, we have an opportunity to think about and through the history of the sport on this continent and in this nation. 

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Given the relative paucity of good histories of soccer in the United States (there are a few but nothing as documented as this one), and given advances archive search tools, Bunk has provided soccer nerds and historians with a great gift.  Not only does he detail the development of the game itself in terms of rules and formations, but documents how the development in the United States paralleled that of England and other countries, while at the same time vering onto its own path.

Rather than understanding soccer as something we simply imported from England (or failed to import), Bunk explains how soccer is fundamental to this country; it has been here since the beginning and has developed naturally in jumps and fits.  While it has always been understood here as “the sport of the future,” it has, in fact, a very long and very grounded past, as well.

I have no interest here in providing a book report or summary (I strongly suggest you buy the book and read it for yourself), I am taken with the way Bunk challenges the normal (and lazy) way we think about soccer in the states. Yes, we know that there were historically teams here, and people often refer to the great factory teams of my decades ago, like Bethlehem Steel. But we still cling to a loose narrative that soccer was invented and developed in England and then imported to other countries over time. “It was over there, and now we’re going to bring it over here”, we think. The problem with this narrative is that we too often look “over there” to see what it is we should be doing “over here.”

As Bunk reveals, soccer in some form or another has “always been here.” Prior to soccer, games with balls were not only being played by Native Americans but were also being brought over by colonists. As soccer began taking form in England, it also began taking form in the North American colonies both organically and through the input of new colonists. In short, and while the details are not important for my purposes, soccer has always been some small part of the fabric of what became the United States and was going through changes in player behavior, in leagues, and in fan behavior that both followed along with changes taking place in Europe and changes taking place organically in US leagues.

Telling the story this way is important to me, not because “we” need to make any founding claim about soccer, but because it highlights, once again, that we also do not need to blindly replicate Europe or view their modes of fanship and soccer culture as the sole measure of authenticity. 

While there is a great need to play a game that fits the rules and sanctions of FIFA and other organizing bodies, there is absolutely no reason for us not to develop a culture around the game that is our own. Because we persist in telling a story that soccer is finally about to become big here, we keep looking over our shoulders, back to Europe, to figure out how to “do it.”   

But we don’t need to feel that way. We don’t need to look that way. For all its faults, the United States has a personality that positions itself as not only fiercely independent but also endlessly imaginative and creative. So, the need of some in the soccer community to constantly look abroad to see if we are doing fanship “right” should baffle all of us if we are thinking and talking about soccer correctly. 

Soccer is not “their” game; it is not “our” game. It is a global game that has always been played here. It’s not only historically accurate to say that there has always been a soccer culture here, but it is also fitting that we begin to embrace that, and act on it in our own ways.

There are no capos at Premier League grounds? Fine, it doesn’t mean there can’t be capos here. Don’t apologize. Embrace it.

Rival fans in the US chide you for one time having a printed tifo rather than a painted one?  Don’t defend yourself; there is no Soccer God who dictated paint or a certain amount of labor. Do it however the hell you want to.

In other words, and damned if I don’t beat this drum a lot, let’s not look for how to do “fanship,” how to do “support” in groups. Take clues and suggestions from what you like elsewhere? Absolutely, but feel a Platonic need to replicate the ultimate standard of fan behavior? Absolutely not.

We not only have as much historical right to soccer as anyone else; but we also have the human ability to celebrate our history however we damned well please.

For those interested, Brian Bunk is also host of the Soccer History USA podcast and is on twitter @SoccerHistoryUS.

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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