America has left the World Cup. Now who do we cheer for? For many, England is the fallback. Sports journalist Zach Dundas—author of the new book The Renegade Sportsman—explores the singular neuroses of an American rooting for England.
Today, the World Cup officially got serious. Uruguay and The Good Korea played a fierce win-or-go-home game in the pouring rain. The United States' gutsy run ended against the sinister forces of Ghana...again. The Epcot Center portion of the competition is over. Henceforth, no hanging around just because your country has cool indigenous music or because you hosted the 1954 World Cup and everyone feels bad for you now. The comedy novelty acts and legacy admissions are out-France, Italy, off to medical experimentation with both of ya. Several hundred Chinese actors can now return to the casting couches of Shanghai after their dream gig playing fake North Korea fans got spiked.
And with the USA eliminated, things get emotionally complicated for American fans. In my case, there's England, who play Germany tomorrow in a rematch of 1914, 1939 (I'm sorry, but you have to mention The War; it's in the by-laws) and 1966 (again, the by-laws). This part of the World Cup almost always brings on a weird personal dilemma for me. I call it my England Problem. The problem: On the one hand, now that Team America Fighting is out, I would like to support England against Ze Germans, for reasons of Atlanticist brotherhood and almost speaking the same language. I have a lot of English friends and I'm just goofy for Wodehouse.
On the other hand, the England team kind of makes me want to vomit.
I've been trying to figure out why this should be. Yes, I would rather see more of Germany's super-cool Mesut Özil than England's lumbering Emile Heskey. Yes, many of England's supporters and about 99 percent of its sports media pull off an unappealing combination of arrogance, hubris, self-hatred and paranoia. And they haven't been playing very good soccer so far, with just two goals scored against USA, Slovenia and Algeria. But in all of that, they're not really very different from any other team in the tournament. So what's with my deal?
I think this is it: knowing too much about English soccer makes it hard for me to support England. This has everything to do with the twisted sentimental education received by many American soccer fans. Like many of my fellow Yankee imperialist scum who've liked the sport for awhile, I have a complicated relationship with English soccer that English soccer doesn't know (or, in any case, care) anything about.
With this World Cup inspiring actual interest in this country, it bears remembering that not too long ago, being an American soccer fan was akin to belonging to a particularly obscure and pitiable sexual minority. You had to visit strange bars at odd hours and mix with unusual people whom you recognized by coded sartorial choices, such as a Bayern Munich scarf worn in July. You had to seek out "speciality publications." In my case, I spent many pre-Internet hours secreted in my university's library, reading three-week old copies of The Observer, which somehow retained a peculiar damp, British industrial scent of their own, making the practice feel even more like hanging out in the back room of sketchy porn shop.
In this sad but sociologically fascinating context, getting into English soccer was a right of passage. We all have favo(u)rite English Premier League teams and we all spend far more time reading The Guardian for its soccer coverage than we spend reading, say, The Washington Post for any reason. We all tend to talk like fake Englishmen when we talk about soccer. English stadiums (stadia!) boast Medieval-war names like Anfield and Turf Moor; the clubs (clubs! not "franchises"!) all sound cool, exotic and ultra-English. Arsenal? Yes! Preston North End? Amazing. Sheffield Wednesday? What the sam-fuck is that? What happened to Sheffield Tuesday? In contrast, American teams use naff ("naff!") names thought up by marketing interns, like "Real Salt Lake," the sports equivalent of naming a one-horse frontier shithole "Paris." If global soccer was a high school, England would be the popped-collar preppie kid with the infinity-edge pool in his backyard; maybe his family hasn't actually accomplished anything in decades, but they have a huge trust fund. Meanwhile, American fans are the kids on the short bus, looking on in envy and thwarted, unspeakable love.
Personally, I add a broader and even more pathetic sports-dork Anglophilia to the equation. I recently devoted most of chapter of an actual book to my love for English darts players and gonzo British sledders. This is the sport-cultural equivalent of donning knickers, bending over and screaming "THANK YOU, SIR! MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?"
England is the default second choice for many American fans come World Cup time. (Or first choice. I know this one dude, as American as you or me or Barack Obama on his mother's side, who actually supported England instead of the US when the two teams played at the beginning of the tournament. As a symbolic protest, I un-followed him on Twitter for ten minutes.) This makes some sense. We sort of speak the same language; many of us had emotionally abusive youth-soccer coaches with British accents-which, incidentally, is all you need to get a job coaching youth soccer in this country. Thanks to the Premier League, England's players, even the ones who aren't David Beckham, are famed icons of global sport. That makes the team easier to relate to than, say, the Slovakians.
But in my case, this familiarity has produced a certain level of contempt. I spend a significant portion of my fall and winter following a Premier League team (Liverpool, no doubt due to some grisly crime I committed in a previous life). And so I have been psychologically conditioned to hate a large majority of the England team's players.
Whatever the reality may be, I can't help but think of defender John Terry, who plays for Chelsea, as a whiny cuckolder. Wayne Rooney, reportedly a very nice man in real life, is firmly established in my mind as an unnervingly childlike psychopath. All those hours wasted on Limey "football" websites leave me steeped in all the worst aspects of England's soccer culture: the petty, vindictive urge to chop down anyone successful (Exhibit A: Beckham, David); the bitchy arrogance about any and all other sporting cultures, especially ours; Manchester United.
Due to this exposure, I have also accidentally developed a connoisseur's enjoyment for English suffering. The Dutch invented "total football." Argentina has Lionel Messi. Brazil is the sport's global good-times symbol. But no one suffers like England-it's the one aspect of modern soccer they have totally mastered. So something sick, dark, and dishono(u)rable within me longs for the moment when England stops pretending it's going to win the World Cup and begins the torturous inquest into why it failed. In many ways, that's when the entertainment begins.
But there's another impulse within me, one which says that maybe England has suffered enough. My chosen club's heroic captain, Steven Gerrard, is also leading the national side after Rio Ferdinand hurt himself and John Terry got caught rogering. I may be a horrible person in many ways, but I don't think I'm capable of rooting against Stevie G. I also have a sneaking suspicion that England's Italian manager, Fabio Capello, just might be able to coax his boys into playing "good football" yet.
Thus it continues, my England Problem. At 7 am Pacific time tomorrow, I will likely don a tweed blazer and start saying "quite" after anyone makes a statement. But I won't be proud of it.