A newly christened soccer nut sets out to settle his Premier League fandom once and for all—and rediscover what it means to be a “fan.”
As human beings, it’s tough to commit. It doesn’t matter if it’s forging lifelong relationships, breaking bad habits, or deciding which promising new FX show to watch. (You know, because there’s no way they’ll cancel Terriers or Lights Out, right? Oh, the pain.) But on some subliminal level, we want to attach, we want to focus our karma in a direction toward some greater purpose that may yet even seem undefined. It’s why the Cameron Crazies paint their bodies head to toe, why Fireman Ed dons his hardhat and braves the Meadowlands frost. We’re not emotionless robots. We root because we must.
For me, pinpointing my loyalties has never been difficult. Growing up in Queens, New York, the choices were relatively simple and decided early on: Mets, Knicks, Rangers, Giants, St. John’s. All this despite my parents. My mother? A diehard Yankees fan. Dad? The biggest Namath-idolizing Jets fan on his side of the Delaware. Even as my family and I moved to northeast Pennsylvania when I was 8, these feelings were already engrained in my psyche, despite the fierce opposition that lay in the faces of my Phillies- and Eagles-adoring classmates.
One sport, however, had long slipped through the breaches of my sports radar: soccer. There was one summer after my sophomore year of high school where I drummed up the nerve to play rec-league fútbol on a crummy field near a community college in the Poconos, but that didn’t spark the love of The Beautiful Game I half-expected to experience. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen organically, so it wasn’t until recently—15 years after that summer—that I decided to hunker down, to commit, to a single English Premier League club that I could unabashedly throw my unwavering support to, whether in the wake of extra-time gamewinners or the soul-crushing aftermath of defeats.
I set out specifically to find a team to root for, whereas all my previous loyalties had been made with heart rather than mind. So I started doing my research, which was easy for a longtime magazine fact-checker. I watched hours of EPL matches on Fox Soccer, ESPN2, and GolTV. For nights on end, I played FIFA 11 on my iPad, trying out various sides, mixing up lineups, trying to find a feel for what squad might grab my inner fan.
Right away, Manchester United was out, as were Chelsea and Arsenal. Already so popular, brimming with talent to spare. To me, there’s nothing fun about rooting for a team that seems to win every time out. Of course, you want some hope your side is going to prevail, but something convinced me they weren’t the right fit. Fulham was a close contender, but I wouldn’t allow myself to get sucked into the Clint Dempsey Vortex of Awesome, seeing as transfers are as common as the day is long. For a new fan, hanging your allegiance on a single player can be a dangerous dance. What would’ve really been gutsy is picking a newly promoted side like Swansea City or Queens Park Rangers, but such an exercise in self-induced masochism would be too much, even for a longtime Mets fan.
No, it’d have to be a team that showed a commitment to winning, yet lived under someone’s shadow. It’d have to be a team that showed guile, grit, and even a bit of drama. It’d have to be a team with high expectations that could just as easily win the EPL as defy all the cheerleaders and end up in the middle of the table.
For me, that team is Manchester City.
It was never supposed to be like this, but the more I investigated, the more I liked what I saw. Roberto Mancini, one of the great Italian soccer legends, managing a team that seems so perfectly disjointed: captain Vincent Kompany, midfielder Yaya Touré, goalie Joe Hart, and forwards David Silva and Sergio Agüero, never mind the impending departure of Carlos Tevez and/or potential arrival of Samir Nasri. This side has storylines to spare, athletic excellence, youth, and character that I didn’t find elsewhere. For someone who grew up on Davey Johnson’s Mets and Mike Keenan’s Rangers, this squad nails the Venn diagram etched on my sports soul.
So yes, I feel good about picking Man City, and there’s no turning back now—especially not after such a public declaration as this—but it ultimately felt odd to go about it so clinically, at least at the outset. There was no chatter about last night’s game over a father/son game of catch. No trash talk under the schoolyard hoop. I was attempting to create some passion that normally comes natural to the sports fan. Continuing down this path, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was engaging in some blasphemous rite that might damn my enjoyment of sports altogether. Had I lost touch with what it means to be a fan? Is it even possible to just up and root for a team out of the ether of nothing?
For now, those fears have been quelled, as I’m trusting my gut and my head on this one. I’d like to think I’m a halfway intelligent sports fan, not giving way to illogical exuberance that might cloud others’ thinking. Of course, I enjoy sports on a visceral level, but I’ve conditioned myself to take the necessary step back, when it’s called for, and see things from all perspectives. I’m convinced those analytical machinations kicking around inside my head have not only helped my sportswriting but, in turn, my fandom. So it will be in this endeavor.
Another benefit of my new EPL baptism has been diving into the wealth of incredible soccer writing the web has to offer. Brian Phillips, of Slate/The Run of Play/Grantland, continuously (and effortlessly) portrays the game in ways sublime and relatable. Grant Wahl at Sports Illustrated is as opinionated and grounded as any mainstream soccer journalist out there. Nearly early EPL match recap from The Guardian fills my RSS reader with an intelligence and analysis that makes 90 percent of US-based beat reporters seem lazy by comparison. And the Twitter feed of The Times’ Oliver Kay has been nothing short of a revelation.
If there was any doubt surrounding my choice, it was swept away Monday afternoon, as I sat in my home office watching Man City take on Swansea City in the EPL season opener. A scoreless first half left me shaky, jonesin’ for a fix that could only come in the form of ball meeting net. Four second-half goals helped produce all the dopamine I’d need for the rest of the day’s agenda, and while I know that not all matches will produce such tension and elation, I’m ready for the ride.
The official crest of Manchester City FC has a Latin phrase along its bottom that reads Superbia in Proelio, which means “pride in battle.” Give me that every week, Man City, and you’ve got a fan for life.