The cleanse before the game

The tailgate before the game. It’s not just for soccer, I know, but damned if it doesn’t play an important role in our game.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last week because of both of my main hobbies; watching soccer and reading about soccer.

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My current read is a fascinating history of the old North American Soccer League (more on that in a future column). In a late chapter concerning different gimmicks the teams used to attempt to bring in crowds, the author quotes a 19 year old fan of the Minnesota Kicks, speaking in 1979 prior to a home game. After a discussion of everything he loves about the game event, notably the frisbee throwing, the beer, the dancing, the drinking, the tailgating experience writ large, this fan observes “Last time I went in [to the game, after the tailgate] and I wished I had stayed out here. It’s cheaper just to stay here and have a party.”

The tailgate, to him at least, is more important than the game itself.

While you will never hear me advocate for a tailgate OVER the game (and I don’t think I know anyone who would), and while I would always choose the game over a tailgate if I was forced to make such a choice, I have to say, tailgating before the beats the heck out of attending a game without tailgating.

And while this is not a solely US tradition, it’s certainly one we can lay claim to. With huge parking lots near our professional stadia (unlike, say, in many places in Europe where the only parking is street parking, so the pregame beer is necessarily in a pub), tailgating seems like an American birthright.

For me, this hit home at Sunday night’s World Cup qualifier between the United States and Canada. As always, I made my way over to the game about two hours early—not at the start of the party, but perhaps at its peak. As is my norm, I wandered about the outer edges of the parking lot first to see if any surprises awaited, then slowly made my way over to the central party zone. For this game, that meant Lot R, home of the American Outlaws party. It was on.

Unlike supporting a local team, where you are more likely to encounter a lot of your “normal” friends in the NSC community, at the Outlaw tailgates, you not only see your local friends, but you also have the experience of running into folks that you’ve seen at US games all over the states (or outside depending on how often you’ve traveled). At the tailgate, I ran into people I had met six years ago at the World Cup in Brazil, folks I had beers with at Gold Cup games in Baltimore several years ago, people I’ve met who have traveled to Nashville before for games. 

There is something immensely gratifying, not just about seeing people again – people with whom you share a love for sport – but about the feeling of being part of a large family, a diaspora of fans that comes together for reunions in significant moments.

Multiple writers about soccer have discussed the spiritual and religious dynamics of fandom, the way we create and join these fanship tribes that make us part of something larger than ourselves. The way we utilize rituals and songs to find renewal in those moments. And I always feel this at tailgates. It’s sensual. The sounds of laughter, of song, the smell of spilled beer, the sights of team colors. 

It’s not just that the familiar chants begin there, it’s not just that we check in with each other. It’s also that these large tailgates feel like a space where people are taking care of each other. Have some food, have a beer, give what you can, take what you need. It’s downright familiar.

Indeed, after I had been at the tailgate for about 30 minutes, someone asked if I was pacing myself ok. I mentioned that I hadn’t had anything at all to drink yet. Immediately, three people offered me beer. The fact that the one I chose to open exploded and spewed all over several people near me just added to the party. I, and those around me, have yet another story to tell. The next time I see the guy who offered me a beer at a different game, we’ll share this story with others.

It’s this, and everything else that we do together prior to the game, that helps build our community. 

With all these friends, I am preparing to head into the cathedral. We are making cleansing ourselves for the game. We are ready.

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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