Greg Cooper on a remarkable group of football enthusiasts who are reviving the links between the game and art.
Chinatown soccer club is not your conventional football team. Started by a collection of artists in Manhattan the football team, or soccer club, they were inspired by the performance of the United States national side and the fanatical support that they witnessed during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
It rejuvenated memories of their youth, and they felt compelled to start playing again, the next step was to create their own side. With the decision made though, they needed to find a place to play near their neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan. They chose an artificial pitch in Chinatown, and when well known artist Ryan McGinnis said that they should just take their name from where they played, no-one disagreed.
What makes this club different are the people who were and still are involved. The collection of artists, designers, skateboarders and photographers make the Chinatown Soccer Club very different to your stereotypical pub side. The players are not artists or photographers like your Mum claims to be when she does a couple of watercolours on holiday – they are cultural icons and have a large effect on what goes on artistically in New York city and the world. Some edit and help run magazines, others contribute art to galleries, and others design adverts which are seen worldwide. I struggle to think of any football club which is as cultured as this one.
One member who is not an artist or a professional skateboarder is Kang. Arguably the clubs' most iconic player, Kang joined when Chinatown Soccer Club had just started, after he saw the team train while he was out exercising. He asked if he could join and has been a member ever since. As with all mythical characters, all the claims about Kang seem to contradict each other and the stories become more exaggerated as time goes on. Some believe that Kang is 63, some believe he is 67.
Whatever his age, most agree that he is a lot older than everyone else in the side, which makes his all-action performances even more impressive. His un-ending stamina is only one of the many physical strengths Kang boasts; he is also known for his handstand press-ups, flexible stretching and his ability to climb the fence round the edge of the court to retrieve the ball after it has been kicked into one of the trees. There is even a belief from some of the squad that Kang has super powers, this rumour started after he had healed someone’s leg temporarily with a strange elixir.
The truth is that Kang is an immigrant from Hong Kong and is just a simple ageing man who doesn’t speak much English, which makes him open to the odd myth or two. The fact that he was included into the Chinatown Soccer Club highlights how friendly and inclusive this collective really is (try getting your Grandad into your local club team and you will understand what I mean). They did not reject him due to his age or the fact that he was completely different to the rest of the team, but accepted him because it was clear that he was willing and had a passion for football. If all amateur sides had an attitude like this, the game would probably be much more enjoyable.
Instead, in England especially, you find that the clubs are extremely competitive and exclusive. What this adds to the team – maybe maybe a couple of trophies – considerably takes away from the purpose of an amateur side in the first place, namely to enjoy yourself with your friends. Even at U10 and U8 matches, referees consistently have trouble with players, but much more likely with parents, about their decisions. Where has it gone wrong? Surely this competitiveness has gone too far and is now verging on the ridiculous. I really doubt a child will remember if they won, lost or drew, what they will remember is having a good laugh with their friends.
The Chinatown Soccer Club is not only a football team though. Because of the creative background of most of the players, the football club has become more like a project. They have created bags, T-shirts and even a trainer with Adidas. I’m sure there will be more to come, as with any collective that contains that many people who are all friends, they are doing this because they are enjoying it and so will continue to do so.
The driving force behind the creativity in this is always football. The projects are collaborative; everyone has the ability to contribute even if you have no expertise in the area. One of their more recent creations is of a clubhouse in Vienna, Austria. It was completed to show the positive effect of football on their lives and other peoples, as they tried to recreate a traditional football pub. The pub has a table football table, retro shirts and photographs showing the history of the Chinatown Soccer Club.
These are artists on top of their game creating art through a football team. This is unheard of. Just putting football into the same sentence as art is massively frowned upon, even now. Imagine trying to explain to some of the game's more abrasive figures that a group of artists from New York have created a football team and are using it as inspiration for creativity, they would laugh in your face.
Football has always been one of the main influences in art though. Many books have been influenced by football, such as Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby or A Season with Verona by Tim Parks. However, the fact that this art is “proper art” and is being done by Americans (yes, Americans), those people who, according to what most believe, are completely ignorant of football and have no interest in the game at all, makes it all the more shocking for English anti-intellectual managers and coaches who still believe that it is “our game”. This is great news for Amateur football and football in general.
In its own unconventional style, the Chinatown Soccer Club seems like it is undermining every taboo that is still left in football. I’m grateful for this and you should be too.
To read more from Greg, visit It's A Ball, Not A Bomb.