“You should be ashamed,” hollered a woman in a white Stetson with a diamond encrusted “W” glinting off the front of it. “You’re unpatriotic,” she concluded. My sister and I heard that sentence over and over when we attended the second inauguration of George W. Bush. That was politics. That was Washington, DC circa 2004. Flash forward to the present and I’ve heard nearly the same argument tossed my way when it comes to the World Cup.
Not being a fan of the U.S. national team has made me a target of disdain, ire and not a few rants on just how “wrong” I am, and that there’s no other country in the world where the citizens aren’t zealots about the national team.
I could fake it—I could chant, “U.S.A, U.S.A.,” with other fans, but it would turn my ambivalence into resentment. Note that my feeling for the team is ambivalence—not hate, or even strong dislike—as I have never felt connected to its players, fans or style. I am not disappointed if the U.S. team does well, nor do I plan to root against them in the World Cup. But for a country of people that cannot get behind the simplest of human necessities, such as healthcare for its citizens, it strikes me as peculiar that when a sporting event is on, we’re suddenly all supposed to care about America. The messages are muddled: If you’re an American, you need to care about sports, get behind the team and be a part of the collective—but you can’t care about your neighbor.
As a Liverpool fan, my interest naturally is in our players’ performances, and I plan to keep a close eye on their national teams. However, even if I didn’t support Liverpool, Spain would still be my favorite. The passion and prowess they’ve displayed on the field is undeniable and watching them over the past few years has been enjoyable. They are the Cup favorites for a reason. Similarly, I enjoyed watching the Netherlands in the last Euro and I’m a fan of Dirk Kuyt, so those matches will also be on at my house. One of the most anticipated matches, featuring three Liverpool players, is Saturday’s between the U.S. and England.
To root for either the U.S. or England would feel false. I must admit to a preference for Capello as a manager even though comparing him to Bob Bradley feels somehow unfair. Capello has a pedigree unavailable to American managers. The caliber of players also seems to weigh heavily in England’s favor, if I didn’t know how easy it is for England to underachieve and for the U.S. to defend its way through matches. Instead of a team, I’ll root for the game of football tomorrow; here’s to an inspired match.
Even writing this, I feel an overwhelming sense of “meh.” Why am I still unconvinced? Does it even matter? Does it really mean I am somehow wrong and unpatriotic?
Enter last Thursday’s U.S. flag burning by fellow Liverpool supporters, and then enter an article on the Fox Sports website by Robert Burns. Burns suggests that because two Liverpool fans burned the American flag, U.S. fans should “rally like never before behind our players and give them the support that those in England believe is beyond our grasp.” Granted, the flag burning incident is an embarrassment; I shuddered when reading about it. But I also thought it an incredibly stupid, uncreative and lazy gesture on the part of those fans. I also dislike “Yanks out” and the nonsense cowboy slogans. When visiting Liverpool in March, I must admit to experiencing a heightened awareness and discomfort with my nationality when interacting with fans. I never felt that way in the past. It was an “Oh no, I am one of them” type of feeling that usually portends some sort of altercation. If I am one of them—an American—that must mean I am not fully behind Liverpool, not a real fan.
Being a Liverpool fan has exposed me to more types of people—races and nationalities—and football is the language we share. How many Americans even know what Hicks and Gillet have done to Liverpool Football Club? Burns’s article doesn’t even say that was the day the “mutual consent” deal was announced for Rafa leaving the Club. I can’t imagine Texas Rangers fans are too happy with how their team has been managed and, living in Chicago, it’s unfathomable how fans would react if foreign owners decimated one of our beloved teams as Hicks and Gillet seemed determined to do to Liverpool. So to Robert Burns I’d offer that context is everything and this isn’t some chest-pounding rally behind America moment.
When reflecting back to the inauguration in 2004, another incident stands out: an anarcho-punk-styled (I’m surprised he didn’t have a Crass patch sewn to the butt flap on his pants) young man strode up to us screaming “No blood for your oil war!” My sister and I looked at each other and practically broke into laughter as we, in tandem, said, “we’re on your side!” The young man ended up apologizing and hugging us over this case of mistaken identity. We’ve concluded that he judged us as being on the other side because we were nondescript in our black winter coats and hats, or because we didn’t look like him or a majority of the protestors. In spite of walking in the crowd with them, we still represented the “other” and certainly didn’t fit in with Bush supporters either.
It’s strange to be floating in that same limbo again, uncertain of how to navigate the space between belonging and not belonging, of how to provide satisfying answers to myself or anyone else about loyalties to club or country. Should I have to? Will I always be an outsider?
For the Liverpool fans that burned the U.S. flag, I can only yawn and say, “poorly done.” And for anyone in the U.S. calling for a rally over two people burning a flag or to those hollering at me or anyone who shares my feelings, I’d like you to come up with a better argument than “because it’s your country.” Can we quit predicating arguments on nationalistic obligation and start talking about “the world’s game”? I’ve been passive in many of the conversations on this subject, I’ve sat back and listened all the while wondering if the person even watched any U.S. qualifiers or could name more than a couple of players. I want to hear from someone that actually loves the team and is truly excited to watch them for any reason other than “it’s my country.” Talk to me about the style of play, convince me of their merit, and prove my ambivalence wrong. Or better yet, maybe the team will.