“The rest of the world is a big place, and its essential inhabitant is the stranger” - Bill Buford, Among the Thugs.
I have always been envious of cigarette smokers – Not for the addiction and host of medical problems – no, my envy of smokers comes from a much more superficial and ridiculous place: parties. How often I’d sit at parties and want to start up a conversation with some strangers only to have absolutely nothing to break the ice with. What did I have in common with these strangers? “Nothing,” I thought, and alcohol can only lubricate a social situation so much. But seeing the cool fucks outside the back door, all asking each other for a light or a cigarette and conversation flowing after like the cheap piss beer we were drinking, I wanted in. That is why when I am drunk I become a vociferous chain smoker. But let me digress, this desire to be accepted and connect with strangers has a connection to the beautiful game.
During the second leg of the Supercopa between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, I was visiting New York City with my parents and consciously chose to wear my blaugrana Puyol strip. My day turned out to be an adventure through neighborhoods, cultures, and ethnicities sharing an icebreaker, a common bond with as disparate a group of people that only a city like New York can produce.
My unusual day began when dropping my car off for an oil change a portly Hispanic mechanic stretched out from behind a doorway, pointed at me in my kit and said ominously “Today.” This awkwardly confrontational moment would serve as a microcosm for the rest of my afternoon.
Travelling from gentrified Hoboken on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, to the famous Canal St., home to Caribbean and Sub-Saharan African men hawking fake designer products, to Chinatown, up through Little Italy and ending at the touristy South Street Seaport on the East River, my Barça strip registered comments from people of each enclave.
The diversity of ethnicity and age – from high-fiving a ninety year old man who stopped me to pull a Barça hat out of a shopping bag, to a ten year old boy who when he saw my jersey pulled out a Barça scarf – got me musing about the ability of sports to build a collective conscious among people who on the surface have so little in common.
The power of sport to build a group or community consciousness is something that has been widely documented, especially with FC Barcelona as a symbol of political and cultural identity in Catalonia, and never before had it been more evident to me than during my day in New York City. While I have read books on the power of sport and sociology of the crowd, the ivory tower of academic literature and comfort of my couch are a pale comparison to the vibrancy of real life and experience.
The ability of a red and blue striped shirt to elicit an emotional response from people literally from all corners of the globe is something unbelievably complex and beautifully simple.
We were drawn together by the game; a common interest when the stories and realities of our lives would offer little to nothing else in common except for a love for the brand of soccer Barcelona prides itself on providing its fan base. It is what drew me into a bar in Little Italy to high five an Italian waiter screaming “MESSI” as if the flea was a loved one who had just died, and flip the bird to Jose Mourinho yelling “Fuck you Mou!”
As Jimmy Burns detailed in his history of Barcelona, “For only when his family began to follow Barça did they begin to feel a sense of belonging. To cheer the club, to pay homage to the individual skills of the players, to shout abuse at Real Madrid, was to confirm oneself as a part of the local community and break through the alienation of being an emigrant.” Awesome, that was me, except I was 3,000+ miles away, decades in the future, and neither Spanish nor Catalan.
I have never been to Barcelona nor seen the club play live in-person, but thanks to our rapidly globalized world I feel a profound connection to them, more than any I can ever imagine having with the New York Energy Drinks (Red Bulls). As Franklin Foer, author of 'How Soccer Explains the World', notes on the subject of foreign fandom and group identities:
"That's one of the frightening things about commodified tribalism -- it becomes so much easier to slip in and out of a group identity. You're no longer just born into who you are, you get to choose it, and it can get sold to you by corporations. That to me is kind of scary. But then again, you can see the upside to it -- when you can slip into an identity more easily, you can also slip out of an identity more easily and maybe that makes it ultimately more harmless."
What globalization has done as evident in my life is bring me to love the game of soccer of a club playing across an ocean and build relationships with fellow fans back here in the states. Between me and the portly Hispanic mechanic, Italian waiter in Little Italy, small boy at the South Street Seaport, or construction worker on break at the former site of the World Trade Center who asked me the score of the game, the beautiful game and Barcelona tore down the physical and cultural boundaries of our lives. At risk of sounding overly romantic, the shirt and sport served as an item to be shared and a universal language between us. Moments of brilliance like Leo Messi’s goals that evening bring out this desire to celebrate in unison, for a human connection.
The phenomenon of feeling loneliness in the city, that postmodern affliction Holden Caulfield introduced many of us to, is quelled by the sport, the strip serving as a ticket of admittance to this collective experience of pagan mass where euphoria or defeat is to be shared together. Barcelona cut racial and class divisions for me on this day as it did for the emigrant cules who found their Catalanism and integrated themselves into the larger collective of the nation through cheering for FC Barcelona.
To be a fan of the game is to care for more than just the game itself, which begins and ends with the tick of a clock and stays within the confines of the field of play – it is for many the desire for an identity, to be a part of a collective sharing a common goal, to exist within an “us against them” mentality for our more pessimistic social theorists.
Though negative facets of professional sport are abound in its use to perpetuate sexism, outdated racist tendencies (Please reference the ape grunting at the Bernebau and Nou Camp when each respective away club’s colored players touched the ball), obsessive fanaticism(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvMf_OK_-6E Haha ), and nationalism bordering on jingoism (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/bangladesh/7756547/Fanatical-Brazil-and-Argentina-football-fans-clash-in-Bangladesh.html), as well as Foer’s above point on “commodified tribalism,” we should heed what Eduardo Galeano once said – “How is soccer like God? Each inspires devotion among believers and distrust among intellectuals” – and make point to remind ourselves it feels good to sit back, root and cheer for our talented athletes and high-five the strangers around us.
As globalization has stepped on the accelerator the past twenty some-odd years, and consequently many of our lives have also increased pace as well, the power of sport delivers a rush of a different sort. An escape from the anesthetic of modern life, the power of the crowd provides, in Bill Buford’s words, “that of existing so intensely in the present that it is possible for an individual, briefly, to cease being an individual, to disappear into the power of numbers – the strength of them, the emotion of belonging to them.”
What we are left with is sport as culture. Talking sports (particularly soccer) is an integral part of male culture around the world, and in the U.S. soccer is shifting from a purely subcultural topic to something more widely recognized in pop culture.
That some decide to pledge their life to the game and fandom for the club should not surprise us if we view soccer through this lens. Again, at risk of creating a romanticized idyllic of the game, that privileged, postmodern search for a different culture than our own – one that is “pure” and made up of archetypes like the unattractive, working class fanatics who live and die with the club – is also what drew many of us in the U.S. to the game in the first place.
All cultures have their good and bad facets, and sport as culture is no different. To close, a quote once again from a character in Buford’s book which encompasses the reasoning and healthy positivism I chose to subscribe to for this piece. “I don’t know if you can call us tribal. I don’t like the word. I prefer to see myself as a part of a collective fiesta in which I can celebrate the great opportunity of being surrounded by others who feel the way I do. The club belongs to us; we are linked to it as if it were a vital part of our existence.” This statement rings true not only for those historically situated localized fans, but in this shrinking global realm of culture, media, and sport, clubs may now belong to those even in the most remote, far-flung expanses on the Earth.