Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fun Like This Should Be Outlawed

This tank top is very low cut.
I had a professor tell me I should cover myself better.
At the beginning of the week, I wore a tank top under an open plaid button-down and a scarf on top of it. My fashion choice got some comments; some of them even directed toward me ("What are you wearing? Why?"). My chosen appearance is a carryover from Sunday, when I indulged in  of watching a World Cup match with a group of devout U.S. fans.

Last Tuesday, I did a report for class on the Syracuse chapter of the American Outlaws, cheering on the U.S. in their first match against Ghana from the (relative) comfort of downtown restaurant Small Plates. You would think the name may suggest that it's a rowdy bunch of soccer football fans, swilling beer and dutifully cheering on their team. You would be right—but there's more to it. The atmosphere was infectious. I decided, during the process of listening, interviewing, and documenting, that I would return Sunday to witness U.S. v. Portugal as a fan, not a journalist.

The problem with being a trained journalist with a keen interest in sports is that it's nearly impossible to be just a "fan." You may try, but this is a challenge; you have spent years developing an analytical mind, and it just doesn't translate into being a sports fan. The rest of the room is whipped into a ballistic (yes, they may actually throw things) frenzy when Tim Howard makes a dramatic save... while you're carefully breaking down why and how the defensive unit let Ronaldo and his perfectly coiffed hair weave almost entirely unchecked toward the goal, and why that relaxed effort will become a problem in, say, the end of stoppage time.

Knowing this... I tried anyway. I carefully selected the most only "American" shirt I own—a low-cut tank from H&M with U.S. flag print on the front, walked downtown to an "American" bar (Small Plates), bought and consumed one or two fine "American" beverages (not at all surprised that Americans largely don't care how "refreshing" their beer is during sporting events). Steve Haller (he leads Syracuse's American Outlaws chapter), Alex Cauwels (the group's secretary and de facto chant master), and Phil Carhart (a character and absolute joy to talk to), whom I had interviewed five days before, all recognized me, shaking my hand, clapping me on the back, and commenting that they were glad to see me out of my button-down shirt and black slacks—which I had worn despite knowing how many human bodies would be packed in one small space...thankfully that shirt's sheen masked the sweat pools on camera.

The Outlaws' aim is unity.
Nothing says unity like encouraging bar patrons to chant "U-S-A."
I arrived twenty minutes into the match. Portugal's Nani had already scored, so everyone was anxious to see the equalizer. My attention was divided initially; I was watching the game in the interest of being informed, but also observing the crowd reaction to the match. As a not-so-passive observer, I eventually found my voice joining in the anticipatory chorus any time the U.S. went on the attack, waiting for Jermaine Jones to find the back of the net, and in the exasperated sighs erupting whenever Portugal's defense repelled the Yanks. Slowly...and then all at once, I was part of this fanatic atmosphere. I sang "When the Yanks Go Marching In," chanted "U-S-A," and may or may not have participated in assorted jeers, most of which were directed at Ronaldo ("Pretty boy"). The entire scenario was brash, charmingly distasteful, and joyously American.

At halftime, I approached Steve to drop $20 on an "American"-motif scarf from the Outlaws, which I had promised him (and, more importantly, myself) last week that I would do. The soccer scarf is a time-honored tradition, and you will almost always wear it in a room that's already ten degrees warmer than outdoor temperatures. When I put that scarf on, I immediately began sweating profusely felt an overwhelming sense of community.

Countless examples in history suggest that the culture around sport is one of solidarity. For one: look at the way FC Barcelona serves as a nationalist bastion for Cataluña, and how its supporters historically regard Real Madrid as the symbol of everything wrong with Spain. Politics aside, fans of one team tend drop their differences and unite under one banner.

Not that this outing was anything like that—it wasn't at all—we just wanted to see our boys competitive in a sport that defies the American model for almost everything. American society has evolved such that in every situation, there is a clear victor. I'll come back to this.

An expected reaction to poor performance (perceived or actual) by FIFA officials.
Among the swelling and receding anticipation of a U.S. goal, Jones scored. I am no stranger to being showered with beer—I went to school where you are all but guaranteed to get wet after a home run—but I was caught off-guard by the celebration (even though I had shot video of this last week and adjusted audio settings accordingly). I feel bad for the employee(s) who had to clean that up... beer on the ceiling is like a fly buzzing around your head. It isn't going anywhere unless you make a concerted, obsessive effort to get rid of it.

Granted, this is hindsight. In the moment, I was just like every other fan; chanting with a renewed sense of hope ("I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN") that we would guarantee our spot in the next round of play, and that we would send Ronaldo, who is more altruistic than the average American fan would like to believe, packing. Mind you, Jones only scored the equalizer. I regard level-headedness as one of my greatest strengths, and I had my own tempered swagger for the next 18 minutes. Any notion I had of being analytical was mostly gone. Like everyone else in the room, I just wanted to see an American victory—assuming there were no Portuguese present, which none of us would have cared enough to look for anyway.

Most often, cheers of adoration were focused on
Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Jürgen Klinsmann
If you know anything about Clint Dempsey, it's that the man is absolutely dedicated. I had just watched an ESPN feature about him; his family's financial situation forced him to sideline his career at a young age so his sister Jennifer could pursue her successful tennis career. After her death at 16 due to a brain aneurysm, he returned to a competitive level, eventually becoming captain of the U.S. Men's National Team and the highest-paid MLS player. This story had Dempsey lodged firmly in my mind, and seeing him throw his body at the goal to give U.S. the lead had me buying in completely. We all took a break from praising Howard, focusing all adoration on Dempsey—that is, until a man dressed as Theodore Roosevelt appeared onscreen. Americans love their former Presidents.

How did I get here?

I grew up a basketball fan, converted to a football aficionado (the kind where tackles are emphatically encouraged), and flirted with tennis on the side before using track and field as my social and fitness outlet while gaining media experience. Yet, here I am, reveling in the excitement of a 2-1 lead over Portugal in a sport that I played for a year in elementary school and generally don't give much thought to...and I loved every moment of this celebration.

Stoppage time begins, and we know that all the USMNT has to do is hold on until the final whistle. The USMNT knows this, too. That's where things fell apart on the pitch. Silvestre Varela made the U.S. pay for becoming complacent, tying the game with seconds on the clock to spare.

There was an unnerving silence as all of the bar patrons watched Howard hold his head in his hands.

This is when I realized something about Americans. We hate losing, but a tie is unthinkable. No popular sport in American society lends itself to a tie. Basketball and football go into overtime, baseball has extra innings, hockey has golden goal overtime and shootouts, tennis has a tiebreaker, golf has a playoff... We perceive everything bilaterally, and we favor dominance as often as possible.

As we all chanted "thank you, Small Plates," while somberly leaving the bar in an orderly fashion, I realized that I was in the middle of something beyond a story for journalism class.

Although... adding beer never hurts.
Watching sporting events in a group is a cathartic bonding experience, one to which the busy and over-stressed look forward and for which they cut short their work days. They live vicariously through competition, represented by a roster of players under the same flag, who sing the same national anthem. This makes the World Cup the perfect American bonding experience.