trying too hard

stadium facade

Did you know they play football in the United States? Not American Football, which I’m not going to talk about. If you can’t say anything nice and all that…

But proper football. It’s called soccer there (some are surprised to hear that soccer is actually a term that originated in England), and since the 70s a renaissance of football in America has been predicted and even promised.

For more than a generation, children in the US have played soccer when they were children and then as teenagers they move on to what were considered real sports. In the first half of the 20th century that might’ve been baseball and later, depending on what region of the country and whether in the farm or in the city, it could’ve been American Football, basketball or ice hockey.

The thing was: football simply wasn’t a respected sport among many Americans. To be fair, Hispanic Americans are certainly not new to football. Like the rest of the world, they get the fascination with the beautiful game. This is an understatement. They get it quite well.

Satellite television has made it possible for Americans to watch the best clubs of Europe and South America. The eventual failure of professional soccer in the 70s and early 80s made it undeniably difficult to convince anyone that there was a place for what would eventually become Major League Soccer.

Dynamo stands

My verdict after going to an MLS stadium and seeing a friendly between the Houston Dynamo and Valencia CF: it still feels like they’re trying to prove it’s real football. The stadium is shiny and new. The fans, many of whom were Hispanic and some even rooting for Valencia, were knowledgeable and passionate. The crowd erupted at the home side’s single goal and yearned for an equaliser after the clearly superior Spanish side quickly went up 2:1. The Dynamo even has loyal fans, who are notorious in the league for being louts. The stories I’ve heard of the shenanigans of the Houston team’s fans during last year’s playoffs is just another example of trying too hard to prove they’re legitimate ultras and by extension that this is legitimate football.

There was even tailgating outside the stadium, which is a great way to get American fans more comfortable going to see a sport that still gets ridiculed and denigrated. I’d love to describe that to my British friends who take football seriously. As a Yankee curiosity, that practice might be tolerated. As a football tradition, I don’t see it going very far. They’ll see you when you decide to come back to the pub.

Nevertheless, if my seven-year old niece’s response is any indication of the future success of the whole endeavour, then football has a bright future in the US. She arranged an impromptu match the next morning in the field across from where they live. She’ll likely never call it a pitch and she’ll only hear real football chants on television, but long-term I see good things happening.

old friends sitting on a bench at the original Ninfa’s after the match

Believing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Are you really going to listen to Winston?

What I’m going to talk about, probably many or most of you have no idea. Well, you might know about it. But it’s very likely not the obsession for you that it is for me.

Yet the actual thing I want to talk about is universal and quite applicable to many people’s lives. It’s the way I want to get there that might need a bit of ‘splainin‘.

If you know me elsewhere, particularly in real life or on twitter, you know that I’m quite passionate about football. Soccer, Fußball, fútbol…whatever you want to call it. I could go into how I got into football, but that’s for another blogpost. Instead, I want to talk about my hometown team: FC Bayern München (although it’s my adopted hometown, it’s very much my home). In the interest of full disclosure, I should inform you that I support the other local club in Munich…again, that’s for some other time.

See, the local team lost an important match the other night, and it got me thinking about winning and losing. About success and failure. About the things that sport allegedly teaches us, but that are so often lacking at the highest levels.

Saying that this particular  soccer game was important is an understatement. They were playing the final of the Champion’s League on their home pitch (their own stadium), which is something no-one had done since AS Roma in the 80s back when the Champion’s League was still called the Europa Cup. From what I understand, it’s never been won by the home side.

FC Bayern wanted to be the first. There was an air of inevitability about it. The football gods were assumed to be smiling down on this team. All was set up for their domination of the final match against what many thought was an inferior football team (London’s Chelsea FC).

But then the home team lost. Dramatically. Painfully, if you were a fan of said club. However, if you supported the visitor’s, the whole thing could not have been better scripted. You’d be much happier with those football gods in the post-game elation. Deities that you’d formerly cursed were now not only forgiven but even given their due. It was a beautiful night in the Bavarian capital for an English football organisation that had formerly experienced bitter defeat at the international level.

So those of you who could care less about sport…if you’re even still reading, what does this have to do with you? Actually, even if you have no interest in football, the bigger picture might have something to offer you. See, FC Bayern is quite proud of their ability to plan.

I could dislike the team for it’s success, but that is something I support and appreciate. Succeeding is all it’s cracked up to be. I suppose part of it is the money, but many football clubs at that level have astonishingly massive war chests. It’s not as if Chelsea is lacking for funds. Oh, and I could also fault the hometown club for their arrogance. Nothing surprising here. Any team, in any sport, that’s had as much success as they have, is likely to be arrogant about it.

But as much as I dislike all of those things, there’s one last component that irritates me as much as the others do. It might even annoy me more than the others.  This is the bigger picture I was talking about.

They think that if they plan properly, then they’re guaranteed success. That quite simply one can organise and strategise his way to victory. That’s not how it works. Not in sport and most definitely not in life.

Now, you may be one of those self-actualised sorts who believe you can do anything if you put your mind to it. What do I have to say to that? Nonsense. Maybe you’ve had some success with that line of thinking. In all likelihood, you’ll have more. But my experience has been that as much planning one does, you can’t disregard the intangibles.

You can’t guarantee winning. 

This is what sport is supposed to teach us. That you can fight and strive and struggle all you like, but eventually it could just not turn out the way you wanted. Not such a difficult concept to comprehend. Believing in one’s self or one’s destiny isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even my seven-year-old niece understands that one.