Archive for July, 2011

Soccer Snobs, or, Bobby Moore Would Not Approve

July 10, 2011

The ghost of Bobby Moore looms large over my family, our sort of patron saint of football.  He certainly haunts the world of English football, representing England at its absolute dominant best, and at the same time painfully reminding England that it will never measure up to that again while expectations that it will unfortunately still remain. Hopefully this will eventually fade away – loss of empire seems to still only irk the BNP; English football glory needs to likewise gracefully fade into bittersweet nostalgia and pride in a rich history, not feed into current expectations for the national team (though maybe the masochism is part of the charm; for an explanation why native English talent is now in short supply, check out Soccernomics).  But glorious it was, reaching its zenith in 1966, when the dynamic duo of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst led the English side to victory when England hosted the World Cup. In the final match against Germany, perhaps one of the most memorable and amazing finals in sporting history, Geoff Hurst completed a hat-trick to bring home the cup.

But before the near-mythic victory of 1966, beginning in 1961, Bobby Moore & Geoff Hurst, along with the rest of the West Ham side, several English clubs such as Everton and Blackburn, and a few other domestic league clubs from around the world (amongst them: Kilmarnock from Scotland; Valenciennes, France; Dukla, Prague; Recife, Brazil and once even Petakh Tikvah from Israel), gathered annually for about 6 years, for a short international summer season at Randall’s Island.

My dad, aged 13, having just moved from Kingston, the small idyllic former NY capital up the Hudson, was now all of a sudden a city boy and quickly made use of this unprecedented sports bonanza New York had to offer.  Further confirmation that maybe New York was the center of the world? He grew up a devout New York Giants fan, but after they moved to San Francisco in 1957, they left a vacuum, especially in summer – a huge hole where a burning passion for Willie Mays used to be.  In stepped the golden boy Bobby Moore and West Ham United. Over the next few years, my dad, a natural athlete who excelled at baseball, basketball, (American) football and soccer, and a keen fan and observer of the sports he enjoyed, quickly absorbed the nuances of the Beautiful Game, especially the English game.  One summer, after watching a West Ham and Liverpool match, and incensed by the Liverpool defense, he felt compelled to write a letter to the leading English football magazine. Unfortunately, he signed with his real name and address and consequently got loads of hate mail from Liverpool supporters. One such letter began, “Dear Candy-Eating American.”

Add to the magic of Bobby Moore the fact that the East End of London, where West Ham plays, once boasted London’s first real Jewish community, and the incorporation of West Ham United into my dad’s sports consciousness was sealed.

A few years later, when he decided to leave New York for a kibbutz, he took the long route and traveled a bit through Europe. While in England, he had a choice of either visiting Wales the next day, or attending the first division season opener – West Ham vs. Tottenham at White Hart Lane. It was a no-brainer, and to this day he laughs when he recalls the chants by Spurs supporters of “Bobby Moore is a thief.” After the match, standing on the platform for his train to head home, he watched as dozens of fellow West Ham supporters promptly began to thoroughly destroy the train specially chartered for their ride back to the East End . Lovely.

Unfortunately, West Ham supporters, like other footy fans, not starting out with all that much class to begin with, have worked diligently to earn probably the worst reputation for hooliganism in the UK. A few years ago I remember watching a match against Spurs (which are considered the “Jewish” team since they are from North London, where most London Jews ended up when they could get the hell out of the East End) and West Ham receiving a fine because many of its supporters enthusiastically chanted, “I’d rather be a Paki than a Jew.” Classy stuff.

Recently I finally watched the Hollywood movie about West Ham fanaticism, Green Street Hooligans. I resisted it for a long time because Elijah Wood played the lead and the thought of Frodo as any kind of footy fan made me cringe. But he was kind of perfect, playing a geeky, American, Harvard drop-out, in London visiting his sister and  finding refuge with an especially rabid West Ham firm, its ring-leader played maybe too charmingly by Charlie Hunnam. You do have to suspend some disbelief while watching it to fully enjoy it – for instance I couldn’t tell whether their disdain for journalists (bloody journos!) had a basis in reality or was just a plot device, as in, if Frodo turned out to be one and infiltrated their ranks, it would have been worse than if he had been a narc. Much worse. However, after the News of the World fiasco, it is becoming easier and easier to fathom.

The movie ends with one of my favorite modern-day battle scenes and its harsh violence and tragic consequences are clearly heavy-handed morality tales, the story adapted from a book by a reformed hooligan who now devotes his life to ridding football of the scourge of football partisan violence. No matter, it’s still enjoyable.

Born into a family that takes sports and its history rather importantly, to put it mildly, relating to others through sports comes naturally. Especially when I have spent time abroad, football/soccer is a wonderful and natural lingua franca, and as a girl who knows about it, it’s almost been like a cool party trick – especially with all the Brits I seemed to encounter during my travels.  And for any real sports enthusiast, having a team with a genuine connection to makes the sport more fun and engaging.

My independently found love for the game (and the natural adoption of West Ham as an entryway into it) reignited my father’s interest in the English league and after I returned to the States we would frequently go to Nevada Smith’s to watch matches. We’d invariably be the only West Ham supporters there – there are lots of Chelsea, Man U, Liverpool and Spurs fans around, but the East End is not especially well represented here. There was one exception, every time at Nevada Smith’s we would run into the one other Hammers supporter – straight out of central casting – full-on cockney accent, missing teeth – to this day we wonder how and why this man ended up in New York (though I think he was possibly more fascinated with us and how exactly two New York Jews ended up being West Ham fans – he was always friendly and seemed genuinely excited to have someone to talk Hammers to, but he also looked at us a little strangely, squinting like he couldn’t see us well – it was a mutually felt dilemma apparently).

The frenzy over the World Cup last summer seemed to consolidate an American base for the game, reflected in the consistently solid popularity of the current incarnation of a professional American soccer league.  It was kind of thrilling to have to get to a bar early last summer to ensure seating for a match – I should be embarrassed to admit that I arrived at Soda at 9AM, before management, the day of England-USA, which was on at 3PM. You can’t be too careful! And they ended with a draw – so definitely worth it for gloating rights alone. Poor England.

Several bars rightfully exploited the new popularity of the sport, and branded themselves as soccer bars. This includes one bar in my neighborhood. Woodwork, which opened in January of 2010, really fully entrenched itself last summer as a soccer bar with the Cup, and continues to draw patrons eager to watch whatever tournament or season match is on.

However, it at least originally also televised other sports – I certainly remember watching the great America vs. Canada Olympic hockey match (full house that day) and March Madness games, though I always sensed some kind of disconnect between the patrons and some of the bartenders – while watching the NCAA tournament, our bartender not only started degrading college basketball and the tournament, in one fell swoop he dismissed all team sports. Err…this is a sports bar right? I haven’t seen him since though, maybe they figured out he was not the best suited? But there is definitely a tension in the bar’s identity, trying to balance its appeal to a particular type of Brooklyn patron, and on the other its draw as a sports bar. However, more and more, the bar does not cater to the average sports fan at all and I have never felt completely as comfortable in it as I have in my past local sports bar homes, such as Nevada Smiths, or Champs in Montreal, which was around the corner from my apartment and where I spent many evenings watching the Knicks in the late 90’s, when they were good. I distinctly remember friends stopping by to say hi and thinking it would be very funny to root for the Pacers.

Woodwork is a sports bar for the newer Brooklyn – the menu has a foodie’s stamp of approval and the patrons are definitely the newer residents in the neighborhood. Which in itself is fine. However, part of the beauty of watching sports at a bar, with other people, is the collective enjoyment and participation, and the egalitarianism that immediately sets the tone, trumping  any pretenses once the talk turns to sports.

However, it appears that the popularity of soccer/football has entered the realm of “cool” and many folks who are not otherwise sports fans, but who love living in Brooklyn and tend to privilege “good taste” above all else to set themselves apart (I won’t use the “H” word; it really should just be retired already) have appropriated soccer as a badge of (pseudo) sophistication and worldliness.

A few Fridays ago, when the Mets and Yankees played Game 1 of their annual 4th of July Subway Series, I headed to Woodwork to watch – who in New York wants to watch that alone? I aimed to get there early to ensure a seat. I needn’t have worried, my friend Liz and I were the only ones there to watch the game! In New York City! That in itself was a bit dismaying, and really just puzzling. I actually had to ask the bartender to turn on the game, on one particular TV in a section where no one else was sitting (the other 4 TV’s showed Argentina vs. Bolivia). I overheard someone asking when they would turn on the Argentina/Bolivia match and the bartender explained that “Those girls are watching the baseball game.” Before this patron moved on to a different seat in front of a TV with the match (exactly 2 feet away), he approached me and asked what inning it was. Innocently, thinking he cared, I told him bottom of the 4th. Only then did I realize he just wanted to point out that he’d like for the game to be over so he could watch soccer. Liz persuaded me not to go over and tell him what I thought of this, like I really wanted to.  But it left me so disappointed and a little angry.

The beauty of enjoying sports, and the reason so many, including myself, find refuge in them, is because it is so very far away from the judgmentalism of what it means to be cool and sophisticated. Everyone can belong, it is not an exclusive club. You might have serious one-upmanship about knowledge about teams or the sport, but it is never about judging another person’s worth and it is almost always driven by a real and pure enthusiasm that cannot be faked.

To sit in a bar in New York and have someone act dismissively because I would prefer to watch the two New York baseball teams play each other plays on all my worst stereotypes of why some people move to Brooklyn or New York these days. I try not to ever even let my mind wander in that direction and generally enjoy all the new businesses opening up in my neighborhood (except for the Olde Brooklyn Bagel Shoppe; really, in my zoning utopia that named would never be allowed) and welcome the good food and community atmosphere, but the soccer snobs make some new patterns hard to ignore. Bobby Moore would not approve.