“It’s not a choice!”
That’s a refrain I’ve heard often from soccer fans describing how they came to support their favorite team.
Some supporters were raised within miles of their favorite club, while others shared a cultural or religious kinship with a certain side. For those fans, then I understand. They had no choice.
These are the same people who seem to look at me with disdain when I explain that while I do indeed have a favorite team (Barcelona), I am sometimes proud to show a smaller degree of allegiance to the likes of Arsenal, Bolton, Bayern Munich and Paris St. Germain.
When I reveal this list of clubs, I usually get a curious stare and the same question: How can you call yourself a supporter of more than one club?
The answer is simple. I practice what I like to call Football Polygamy.
I am part of a generation of American soccer fans who came of age in an era when televised broadcasts of world-class soccer were few and far between.
How were we supposed to develop any kind of love for a particular club when watching a given team play was such a rare occurrence?
Fixtures from England, Italy, Spain, Germany and South America were not the weekly standard they are today. ESPN had yet to go after the soccer market. And many people forget that not too long ago there was no Fox Soccer Channel.
We had Fox Sports World. And while Fox Sports World showed a couple of European soccer games each weekend, airtime was also shared with the likes of auto racing and Aussie rules football.
The point is, whenever I got a chance to see a top-flight match, I was watching it – regardless of the league or the teams.
Not surprisingly, the one or two EPL games Fox Sports World broadcast invariably featured at least one of the same four clubs: Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle. (These were the pre-Abramovich days, so the beer and exploits of Alan Shearer helped Newcastle best Chelsea when it came to global brand awareness).
The same thing goes for other leagues: If it was Bundesliga, it was Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. Italy was AC Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina, etc.
And don’t even get me started on international soccer. Every four years we got the World Cup Final. Not the whole tournament, just the Final.
And even that was on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, as if it was some peculiar sporting event to be grouped with the likes of ski jumping, curling and the World’s Strongest Man competition.
I was a schoolboy during Barcelona’s Dream Team era of the early 1990s. Therefore there isn’t really a need to explain why the Catalans were my first love – or as I affectionately refer to them now: My First Wife.
A funny thing happens when you are “forced” to watch loads of games that don’t feature your favorite side: You slowly accept that you are starting to develop an affinity for other teams.
After all, was I supposed to just not care about the players or the outcome simply because the result would have no impact on the La Liga table?
For a Barcelona fan, Arsenal’s similar style of play makes them easy to like. Other teams you admire simply because they are so good.
But my favorite side effect is that you sometimes find yourself supporting teams about which previously knew absolutely nothing … and even some that aren’t all that good! This is how I once explained my admiration for Bolton to a London pub full of Tottenham fans a number of years ago.
They were absolutely befuddled as to how a Yank could know anything about the EPL, let alone why said Yank would admit to liking the Wanderers (even this Yank knew confessing a slight liking for Arsenal would have been unwise when surrounded by Spurs fans!)
Then I pronounced, “Jay-Jay Okocha is a wonder to watch when he is on top of his game, Kevin Nolan and Kevin Davies are scrappy players who battle for their goals and Jussi Jaaskelainen is an amazing shot-stopper. Plus, Big Sam Allardyce’s teams always have a good measure of fight in them.”
The Spurs supporters looked at me in a stunned silence as they processed what I had said. I’m not sure, but I think a few of them might have even nodded in agreement!
That brings me to another benefit of practicing football polygamy: Romances with various clubs need not be permanent. Certain players, coaches and styles of play can lure you in, but you are not beholden to them forever. My attraction to that Bolton side faded soon after Okocha and Big Sam departed.
A few years ago I had a fling with Fulham simply because they were giving so many Americans a chance to play. (However, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that such trysts can lead you do do silly, silly things like spend a lovely London afternoon sitting through a nil-nil draw between Fulham and bottom-of-the-table Derby County at Craven Cottage!).
And those Spurs fans would be happy to know that it was their team that caught my eye last year. Tottenham’s run through the Champions League was exhilarating stuff. The genius of Rafael Van der Vaart and Luka Modric, Gareth Bale’s hat trick in a losing effort against Inter Milan and that rough-and-tumble slaying of AC Milan at the San Siro. Were you not entertained?
The final pillar of Football Polygamy lies in being willing to happily participate in one-night stands. I made the pilgrimage to Parc de Princes to see Paris St. Germain just once. That dalliance was wham-bam-thank-you-man all in the name of Ronaldinho.
I tried to re-kindle that flame a couple of years ago when the club signed Claude Makelele and Ludovic Guily – two players I’ve always respected and viewed as underrated – but the spark was gone.
At least Barcelona, my First Wife, eventually signaled its tacit approval of my fling with Ronaldinho by signing him and riding his skills and persona to the first of its three most recent Champions League titles.
American kids walking around these days donning the shirts of clubs like Aston Villa, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and the like doesn’t surprise me.
Soccer fans in the U.S. can now watch matches from almost any league in the world. Perhaps that will lead them to remain faithful to one, and only one, club for the rest of their lives.
If so, good on them. Me? I think I am hooked on my philandering ways for life.
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