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An enthusiastic Dawg Pound patron discovers the other football
by: Mike Barkacs
Pg 1 of 1

I've never cared much for soccer. Like most Americans, my attention was always focused on our three major sports. That the rest of the world was completely enamored by this other game made no difference to me. What did they know? Soccer has always been looked upon with a suspicious eye here. In this country, it's condemned as a boring game played by weak clods who are too inept to compete in a "real" sport. I fully accepted this verdict.

I was wrong. We are all wrong.

I never meant to take an interest in this game. Never meant to even give it a chance. My indoctrination into soccer was like falling in love -- it blindsided me when I least expected it, like meeting your kid sister's old friend and all of a sudden realizing she's a lot less odious than you once thought.

A few years back, through some unexpected twists of fate, I found myself in England, birthplace of the dreaded game. At the time, even though my beloved Cleveland Browns had not yet been reincarnated, most of my free time was spent searching in vain for early football reports or baseball box scores. The English football season had just begun and the sports news was dominated, as it is all year long, by endless accounts of 0-0 or 1-0 matches between teams I had never heard of playing a game I scoffed at. 

Slowly, I began to pay soccer a little attention, or at least I acknowledged its existence. I began to keep tabs on the home team. I'd catch the occasional highlight show. In a dive pub one afternoon, I found myself watching a whole match with a bunch of blokes who were taking the action very seriously. This wasn't the sort of soccer, and these certainly weren't the sorts of soccer fans, I remembered from the States. The game was much quicker and rougher, and those guys were the same type I'd been sitting in the Dawg Pound with for years. 

At first, I assumed these blokes must be the English hooligans I'd heard so much about. I started to feel a kind of kinship with them. I thought maybe these hooligans are just getting a bad rap, like the Dawg Pound often does. Sure the odd snowball might get tossed, and we all like to have a bit of beer, but the Dawg Pound isn't the den of depraved monsters it's always made out to be. These blokes were good, solid, boisterous fans, just like the ones back home in Cleveland.

Turns out the guys weren't hooligans after all, and they didn't much like being confused for any. They explained hooligans were marauding bands of thugs just using soccer as an excuse to rampage, thugs who had no place in a stadium or society. I understood perfectly -- Steelers fans.

After this, I started looking at the game in a different light. I chose a couple teams and started following them closely. I learned the players and was surprised (and disappointed) to find that they are paid better than American athletes. I began to see how much talent they have. These aren't like the geeks in America, forever stumbling after a ball. There is a method to their madness, and I was starting to understand what was going on. There are plays and strategies and statistical probabilities I never realized before. I no longer found this sport boring. 

In England, football matches are amazing. Like a Springsteen concert, even if you don't care for the performer, you can't help but love the show. Crowds are loud and tense. That so-called "play-off electricity" is in the air for every game. There are always a large number of away fans who have made the trip, and they sit all together at one end. Throughout the match, one side of fans sings or chants at the other side, and not the unimaginative "Charge" or "Dee-fense" cheers common in America, but long, elaborate, often hilarious, blood-boiling taunts that further increase the tension. The action on the field is continuous and the fans sit on pins and needles, constantly dreading disaster and praying for a goal. When, miraculously, one is scored, all the pent-up tension is suddenly released in a joyous tirade. After a win, the euphoria is like walking on air. True fans often use sex as a metaphor in describing a soccer match -- I'd never have believed it, but they're right. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the world plays a different version of the game than the watered-down variation we are subjected to in the United States. The real version is faster, edgier, tougher. The players' reactions are unthinking and quick. Mistakes are rare but when they occur, they are almost always exploited. In America, only our second- or third-tier athletes play soccer. In the rest of the world, the elite do. The difference is striking.

Until soccer can improve its image in the U.S., and real athletes wrest the game from the delicate suburbanites who now overpopulate the sport, we'll never be able to get a true feel of the game. That's a shame. Some of the best sports fans in the world are missing out on one of the greatest spectacles in all of sport.

Other Columns By Mike Barkacs

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