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A Reluctant Soccer Mom

5 years ago
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I had a formative cultural experience in London last night. No, it didn't entail that controversial new Damien Hirst exhibit at the Wallace Collection. Nor did I catch that hot new production at the Donmar Warehouse. Nope. My cultural immersion was much more authentically British: I attended my first professional soccer game.

Americans don't really "get" soccer. The brilliant Web site Stuff White People Like once spoofed "the idea of soccer" as something white people (read: upper-middle-class white Americans) like to think they enjoy, but actually know nothing about. If you really push most Americans about which teams they like and why, they will greet you with a blank stare. Mostly -- as the post suggests -- Americans are there for the scarves.

And I was right there with them. Until quite recently, I think my knowledge of the sport pretty much began and ended with Pélé. (Remember him?) Sure, some of my friends played soccer in high school and college, but it was always the "other sport" (kind of like the "other white meat"), placing a dim fourth after football and basketball and baseball. And no one even dreamed of following it or watching it on TV.

But then I moved to Europe three years ago and everything changed. As with so many things, my transformation came about through my children and, specifically, my 8-year-old son, who quickly became an avid "footballer."

Under his tutelage, I quickly came up to speed. Now the terms "hat trick," "screamer" and "keeper" just roll off the tongue. I've learned the difference between FIFA, the UEFA Cup and The Champions League. I even know who some of the key players are (though I did once accidentally launder an errant Man of the Match 5 Star Shiny football card that got left in my son's pocket -- poor Carlos Tevez, he'll never be the same.)

You see, when you move to Europe (or Latin America, or -- let's face it -- just about anywhere on the planet), you realize that soccer isn't just a sport. It's part of the cultural fabric of these countries.

For starters, the allegiance that people feel towards their local football club has an almost essentialist feel. It is as powerful -- if not more so -- than one's allegiance towards political parties. (On occasion, this deep-seated loyalty can lead to tragic results.) And unlike partisan support, it doesn't change. Once a Man U fan, always a Man U fan. (FYI: That's Manchester United.)

Which also means that football is something that everyone -- and I mean everyone - can talk about. So unlike the United States, where in-depth knowledge of soccer is a rarefied thing, here it really is a social leveler: something that cuts across racial boundaries and social classes.

Sure, that's also true for lots of different sports in the U.S., but there's no one sport -- even baseball -- that exclusively captures the American imagination. (Think about it: We call baseball America's pastime, but even the term "pastime" suggests something light and almost incidental.)

But soccer also operates as a social leveler across countries. I remember a British journalist once observing to me that the real cultural divide between Americans and everyone else wasn't so much foreign policy or carbon emissions or who really kicked off the subprime mortgage crisis. It was that when all else fails, most countries in the world have a lingua franca they can fall back on. If nothing else, you can always ask: "So, which team do you support?" and you're off and running.

Whereas we Americans are left talking about that weird game with the pigskin and those funny tights, and everyone else just scratches their heads.

Finally, there's no such thing as a soccer mom. This term first arose during the 1996 American presidential elections to denote a married, middle-class woman with school-age children who lives in the suburbs and may be a swing voter. Over here, we're all "soccer moms" and that term has no connotation, political, social or otherwise. (Though I'm not sure I prefer the moniker yummy mummy much better).

Oh. And the game I watched last night? (Arsenal v. Liverpool, 2-1, for those who care.) I almost forgot.

As much as I now believe in the social and political power of soccer, I'm not sure that I'll venture out to see another game anytime soon. The lights were too bright, there was way too much singing and -- having sat right next to the fans of the opponent (protected by a row of police on either side) -- I now appreciate why glass bottles are prohibited inside the stadium.

I think I'll just stay home and watch the next one on TV. Care to join me?

Follow Delia on Twitter.

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