Remembrance of Soccer’s Past

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

Illustration by Marshall Hopkins

I haven’t yet admitted this to my wife, but when I went to the New York Red Bulls-Chicago Fire soccer game at Giants Stadium last week, I ate a lot of junk food. I stood in line for twenty minutes in order to procure this food. There was the incredibly salty popcorn, for example, otherworldly yellow kernels already cold by the time I threw the first handful in my mouth. Also, I ate an Italian sausage with peppers and onions, wrapped in a soggy, thick bun that didn’t taste like bread, exactly. It tasted like a cousin of bread. I had a brief discussion with my friend, who’d also ordered a sausage, about whether one or both of us might suffer from trichinosis thanks to our gametime meal. We were washing it all down with beer, though. We rationalized away the threat of pork-related illness by relying on the curative powers of beer. The fact that beer at Giants Stadium cost $7.50 per can seemed reassuring; it must have some added medicinal powers.

Fortunately, neither one of us got sick. The worst we suffered was the shame of burning money at the altar of the American Sporting Event. But as I sat there in the stands, wolfing down an overpriced meal that had no nutritional value and very little flavor, I thought about the meaning of the food we were eating. I sensed that our snack was somehow connected to the hunger of the American soccer fan, a hunger that takes odd forms and often results in unsatisfactory meals, so to speak. In other words, American soccer fans know the delight of great soccer, but they have trouble finding it. They’re forced to pony up extra cash for weird cable channels, forced to pay ludicrous cover charges at bars packed with British expatriates. Sometimes American soccer fans take buses out to New Jersey and sit amidst hundreds of elementary school students, all of whom are bashing together inflatable plastic “thundersticks,” the worst use of acoustic technology since the advent of fingernails on chalkboards. But American soccer fans have memories, impressionistic and passionate, of the game’s potential for beauty, and so they continue to seek instances of that beauty despite these adverse circumstances. My disappointment with the Italian sausage may have been rooted in the pleasure I once took in a heaping plate of perfectly grilled bratwurst at Café Steinhof; in the same way, my hopes for the Red Bulls match last week could not be separated from watching Gary Leneker score on a brilliant volley in the 1990 World Cup.

Am I making some sort of Proustian claim involving memory, Major League Soccer and Italian sausage? Sort of. But first, more on thundersticks.

They look like long, skinny cylindrical balloons, or like some kind of very inadequate flotation device. One thunderstick is completely useless; you couldn’t swat a fly with it. Two thundersticks, though, can be knocked together to create an annoyingly loud air-filled “bonk” noise. When I went to see the Red Bulls play the Fire, there were many third-graders (maybe fourth-graders?) seated near me. And they were committed, deeply committed, not to soccer but to noisemaking. They loved their thundersticks.

The last time I’d seen thundersticks was the summer of 2002. That’s when South Korea and Japan co-hosted the World Cup, and the South Korean fans, it turned out, also loved thundersticks. But the South Koreans’ use of thundersticks, instead of being slapdash, rhythmically inept and irritating, was awesome. Whenever South Korea played that summer, the stadium was filled with tens of thousands of Korean fans knocking crimson thundersticks together in unison while chanting encouragement to their players. I wasn’t in South Korea at the time; I was in New York, waking up several nights a week at two in the morning to watch important World Cup matches on TV, going to pubs early in the morning to eat breakfast specials and watch games before work. One night, I met a few friends at a bar called the Patriot in lower Manhattan at two a.m. to watch the U.S.A.-South Korea game, and I drank pints and stood near the big-screen television, and when the camera panned over the legions of South Korean fans wielding thundersticks, I felt like I was in the stands, surrounded by them, a threatening, uncomfortable feeling. The odds against the U.S. squad were daunting, in part because of thundersticks.

Then Clint Mathis scored a goal.

Mathis was the clown prince of American soccer at the time. He was talented but unreliable. He was a beer-guzzling white Southerner with a Mohawk haircut. The guy was crazy—and he had a better nose for the goal than any other American striker at the time. Sure, Landon Donovan had been scoring more, but Donovan was speedy and persistent, had a Puritanical American work ethic. Mathis, on the other hand, was slightly fat and seemed to have A.D.D. But he also had surprising instincts and quickness. So when the U.S. midfielder John O’Brien bounced a well-placed ball into the South Korean penalty area, Mathis ran alongside it, found an inch of space between the defenders pressing against him, and flicked the ball past the South Korean keeper and into the net.

In this moment of grace, Clint Mathis stilled the red thundersticks of South Korea. This is one of my favorite soccer memories. And the truth is, my memories of playing in and watching soccer games are surprisingly vibrant. Not entire games, but moments. I can remember how it felt, sliding in the dirt, just barely getting my toe on the ball in a high school game seventeen years ago, watching the ball roll into the opponent’s net. I can also remember the taste of the weird honey tea our high school coach made us drink during cold, rainy games in October. I can remember the first time I saw Zinedine Zidane run with the ball during the 1998 World Cup; I can remember wanting the camera to stay focused on his feet. I can remember watching the U.S.A.-Colombia game in 1994, in the middle of the night, with a befuddled Irish innkeeper who didn’t understand how one of his young American guests had learned to love football.

But as Proust wrote, “People foolishly imagine that the vast dimensions of social phenomena afford them an excellent opportunity to penetrate farther into the human soul; they ought, on the contrary, to realize that it is by plumbing the depths of a single personality that they might have a chance of understanding those phenomena.” Proust reminds us here that culture is not a dry template, but a living force comprised of the minds and memories of individual human beings. What my memories are teaching me about American soccer is different from the boring debate about whether the U.S. will ever be a first-rate soccer nation. Can the sport transcend suburban mediocrity in this country? It already has. Clint Mathis was playing in the Red Bulls-Fire game at Giants Stadium last week, and although he didn’t score and didn’t have any effect on the thunderstick-wielding grade-schoolers of New Jersey, he played well enough to remind me of a moment five years ago, in a crowded pub at two in the morning, when the thundersticks fell silent, and of another moment before that, when Zidane headed in the winner against Brazil, and a moment before that, when Marcelo Balboa timed a bicycle kick just right but the ball he struck bounced tragically off the crossbar. It’s not only about the quality of play, or “the product on the field.” It’s about wanting all that—about hunger, the hope for beauty. It’s not a question of how many fans, but of what those fans remember.

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