Football season has come once again...no matter what sport you refer to as "football". While the NFL season won't kick off for another few days, the European version has been underway the past couple of weeks.
This will be my first fall spent in the States since way back in 2006, and I've already noticed a few key changes. For one, my New York Giants doubled the number of Lombardi trophies in their case. But the biggest change I've noticed is in America's attitude toward soccer. The sport was definitely growing in popularity before I left, but it in the last few years, the market for European club soccer has exploded. Now we can apparently watch every single Premier League game on the various NBC networks. Nearly every American sports fan who hasn't already chosen a soccer to the root for is cruising the market, looking for the perfect fit.
I noticed the phenomenon two weeks ago while visiting my friend Greg in Maryland. Over the past year or so, he has transformed into a die-hard Bayern Munich fan, and he asked me to watch their season opener with him. I'll never be a huge soccer fan - the last thing I need in life is yet another rooting passion - but I enjoy watching the game. Better yet, I sensed an opportunity. I grilled my friend relentlessly about his allegiance to Bayern Munich:
Me: "Why not choose an English team?"
Greg: "I've just never been a fan of the style of play in the Premiere League. Plus, you know, I'm German."
Me: "Aren't you more Polish than German?"
Greg: "Well, yeah...but it's not easy to get Polish league games online. Plus I hear that league has problems with racist fans."
Me: "But why choose Bayern Munich? I heard they buy all the best players, and they never lose. Isn't it boring to watch a team like that?"
Greg: "I just...I just like the way they play. They're a fun team to watch. Besides, they don't always win."
I cannot fully describe the perverse feeling of joy I took in firing off these questions. This was vengeance, sweet vengeance against the whole damn sporting world for asking me the same damn questions 50,000 times during the course of my life.
I've been a Yankee fan since the age of six. I was born in New Jersey. Yankee Stadium was the first pro ballpark I ever set foot in, just as it had been for my father before me. It was natural. Sure, I argued with the Mets fans in my neighborhood, but even that was easily accepted. Some people are Yankees fans, some people are Mets fans. There is no why, it just is.
My family moved away from New Jersey when I was 13, and it was then that the questions started. It usually starts with a roll of the eyes, often followed by a groan.
Why? Why the Yankees?
At first I thought I could brush the question off by simply explaining where I'm from. That never works. The questioner will reject it in one of three ways:
- "You're from New Jersey, but the Yankees play in New York." - It never ceases to amaze how often I hear this one. My favorite argument came from a Pittsburgh who couldn't understand why I liked the Giants in football: "If you're from New Jersey, you should like the teams that play in New Jersey." That one was wrong on Inception levels.
- "I met someone from New Jersey who was a Phillies fan...so why aren't you?" - That person you met, my friend, was from South Jersey. He got the Philadelphia networks and Phillies TV broadcasts. I didn't.
- "You could watch the Mets, right? Why not just root for the Mets?" - Because I can't! I physically cannot! It is anathema to my very being. I think only people from two-team cities can understand this. And perhaps only White Sox fans can sympathize with the absurd notion of people asking you why you don't change allegiance and root for your city's crappier team just so outsiders will like you more.
To many American sports fans outside of the Tri-State Area, Yankee fandom is quite literally inexcusable. I have lived in many places since I left Jersey, and there was only place where my Yankee fandom was accepted without question: The People's Republic of China. Baseball has absolutely zero foothold on the Chinese mainland, but anybody who knows anything about the sport has heard of the mighty Yang-ji dui, the greatest of all baseball teams. Mainland Chinese prefer soccer and basketball, and they always root for the top teams - question ten Chinese boys and you will likely find eight or nine fans of the Lakers, Barcelona and Manchester United. Their rooting interests sicken many Americans, but the fact is they have no regional preferences. If they like a sport, they want to see it played at the highest level. They would laugh at the idea of choosing to root for a mediocre team like the Portland Trail Blazers or Fulham FC, just so other people will judge you as a "real" fan.
The simple truth is that I don't care which European soccer team to cheer. But the moment you tell me about "your team," I will interrogate you like a TSA agent on speed. Please don't take it personally.