World Cup Dad

Immediately after my wife gave birth to our first child, three weeks ago, my brother asked me, “Do you think it’s weird that your son is from New York?” I was confused by his question at first. I have lived in New York City longer than I have lived anywhere else. Of course my son would be a New Yorker. That wasn’t strange. What was strange: my brother still thought of me as an exile from our City of Brotherly Love. I realized, though, that his question harbored another meaning and that in a way I was, and still am, an exile. Is it weird, my brother implied, that my son could turn out to root for the Mets, or worse still, the Giants? Is it weird that he might identify with the arrogant fans of the Yankees or find some tribal solace at Madison Square Garden yelling, “Go Range-uhs”? I am always a Philadelphia fan, and my son, I think, will be too, at least for a while. Fandom is a mode by which we hang on to ancient associations, to filial ties, sometimes long after other ties have slackened.

I am thinking about this as the World Cup begins. When my wife was pregnant, I didn’t have very concrete ideas about fatherhood or about my progeny. We didn’t know the sex of the baby, which strangely helped the future remain hazy. (It’s amazing how much we impose on gender). Sure, I sometimes imagined diapers and sleeplessness, or even conjured up a whimsical conversation with a toddler, but these fantasies weren’t vivid; they lacked a main character. The one thing I was sure of, though, was that I would be watching the World Cup with my new baby. I was counting on a blissful immersion into parenthood and soccer. My kid would be a soccer fan. That much I knew without even thinking about it.
I’m reminded of Jacques Lacan’s idea (although I’m sure it predated Lacan) about babies becoming linguistic objects before they are born. The child has a whole system of signifiers thrust upon its nascent soul before it has a chance to think. My baby, my son, had a Phillies onesie and an Italia soccer kit before he could breathe. He has long been considered, without conscious thought on either of our parts, crazy for the World Cup.

I have watched the World Cup since I was young, but these days I really watch the World Cup, taking in just about every match. My obsession started in 1998 when France hosted the World Cup. I had just gotten out my wisdom teeth and quit my job the week of kickoff. I sat on the couch, Vicodin in hand, and encountered bliss. The 2002 Korea-Japan tournament turned watching into boot camp. The alarm rings at 4:00 am. March off to the bar then straight to work, dinner, and back to the bar. Go, go, go. I liked the difficult commitment. That’s what I would teach my son (daughter?), I thought without thinking it, the discipline of the fan.

Many matches are boring. When you stop to analyze the World Cup — the corrupt FIFA infrastructure, the jingoistic nationalism, the quasi-racist stereotypes, the corporate greed masquerading as “benefits” to the host nation, and the sub-par soccer (the players are tired; the teams barely practice) — the World Cup is nothing to love unconditionally, but I do. There may be cynical reasons. As Bryan Curtis argued, soccer is trendy for intellectual writers who want to think of themselves as cosmopolitan sophisticates rejecting the vulgarity of American sports. (I love the vulgarity of American sports, by the way). And soccer players don’t seem like the enemies of nerds in the same way American football players do. (Of course, this is just because soccer isn’t that popular here.) But soccer isn’t just about cultural identification for me. I love the World Cup too because it is a truly grand international carnival, beyond the reach of FIFA and Budweiser, and because the sport is beautiful. It is. Even when boring.

I didn’t get this from my father. Or I did, sort of. My dad is more of a traditional baseball and basketball Irish-American. But for some reason in the early ’70s he stuck his sons in soccer. It was a thing to do. I played baseball and basketball too, but not well. I was small and not very strong, but soccer was close to the ground and intuitive. Just be in the right place at the right time. I followed my father’s fandom in those other sports, but soccer was mine. It still is.

Everyone imagines their children as exceptional successes in unlikely fields; we want our kids to make it on the PGA tour or to sit on the Supreme Court. I am imagining my son right now playing a deep lying midfield position like Andrea Pirlo or Xavi and picking out the perfect through-ball. This fantasy is partly an intellectual’s dream. I don’t see him as the fastest or strongest or most athletic player. I don’t see him as a glory-seeking goal scorer. I see him as the thinking player and a perfect passer of the ball. I see him as the provider. This is not to say that he is all-brains. I don’t want him to be a coach. For some reason raising him to be a coach sounds awful. Or an analyst or a sportswriter. Or any kind of writer. Ugh.

He could be any of those things, of course. He may hate sports or not even care. He has so many choices in front of him, and yet his choices are circumscribed, by me, by us, in ways I cannot even fathom or predict. For now he has none. He will watch the United States play Ghana. And I will hope that the United States has better luck against Ghana is his lifetime than they have had in mine. Or maybe he’ll sleep through it.

I think he will sleep through it, Austin.

Tom Farrelly    Jun 16, 05:06 PM    #

And we’ll said…“He has so many choices in front of him, and yet his choices are circumscribed, by me, by us, in ways I cannot even fathom or predict”

— Tys    Jul 3, 09:44 PM    #

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One Comment

  1. Fine writing Austin. Please accept my belated congratulations on becoming a father! I hope that every thing is continuing to go well for yourself and your family. Despite my best efforts to instruct her in the wonders of the beautiful game my four-year old daughter is determined to be a ballerina!

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