First the MLS imported players and coaches; now, it's taking what it can from the terraces.
This Saturday, Seattle Sounders fans will travel 2,500 miles coast-to-coast to will their team to victory against Toronto FC in the MLS Cup final. It's the kind of migration that feels like it should be narrated by David Attenborough, and says a lot about the role that tribalism is able to play in a country where supporters are routinely confronted with journeys that make the trek from Plymouth to Carlisle – at 389 miles, the longest away day in English football at present – look like a hungover traipse to the shop for Haribo and a ten-deck.
It's interesting to consider the value of ritual and tradition in a footballing nation that tends to draw for novelty to sustain attention. In the last few years, it's not just been footballers and coaches that the MLS has imported; a way of supporting – a lifestyle and culture of devotion – has been shipped in too, most obviously from the Premier League and Bundesliga. But really, it's impossible to talk about the state of North American fandom without first – what's the right word? Absorbing? Experiencing? – enduring this video:
Now that's out of the way, we can get on with answering the pressing question at hand: Just why do Americans love bicycle kicks so much?§
The 1994 World Cup was held in the United States. It was the first international tournament I can (just about) remember, and by virtue of me being a kid and the witching hour kick-off times, I had to watch all the games in secret on a shit, hand-me-down TV in my room, face pressed right up against the screen with the volume on 1 so I could hear if the stairs creaked. My house was built by idiots and creaked of its own accord often, and after every false alarm I'd have to creep back to the telly, turn it on again and manually retune the channel because none of the preset buttons worked. But it was all worth it: Gheorghe Hagi's absurd lob against Colombia; Kennet Andersson doing the same to Brazil; Jack Charlton – who you'd think, if you've ever seen him blast the head off a stag with a shotgun, would be ecstatic just to be in a country with such lax gun control laws – having a tantrum in the Orlando heat; the iridescent kits gleaming like brand new colours in the sun; the world's saddest ponytail; the world's most obviously drugged-up genius. The whole world of football, basically, gloriously England-free, on parade before me for the first time in my furtive satellite town panopticon.
It was a tournament of so many moments, proto-gifs that seemed to lodge themselves in the consciousness of a generation. But there was one moment from that tournament which, for obvious reasons, appears to have taken on a greater resonance to Americans in particular. And it's this:
[daily_motion src='//www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/x31fjgf?start=50' width='560' height='315']
...Chicagoan defender Marcelo Balboa, attempting to score direct from a corner with a bicycle kick.
Why does any of this matter? The relationship that the US has with the bicycle kick is emblematic of their relationship to the game as a whole. Balboa failed, obviously, but that's not the point. The extent to which Americans have struggled to love football due to its chaotic, freeform nature – its attritional, low-scoring routes to victory, defeat or parity – has often been overstated, but while the tide seems to slowly be turning amid a sea of stats-crazed Yanks getting into the game, it's still difficult to escape the feeling that its popularity would increase relative to other American sports if only it could be a little more cinematic – if it were something that took place in short, scripted bursts and had a more obvious plotline than any that could be offered up by 22 players relentlessly shifting in and out of position with very little downtime to analyse and draw breath in between. I've often found it difficult, too, to get my head around the way that so many of the players in the NFL in particular seem to fade into oblivion after a few rare seconds in the spotlight, in a way that supporting cast members like Martin Kelly or Christian Kabasele or Mohamed Elneny just can't in football, given the way the game is built and flows.
But a bicycle kick – well, a bicycle kick is probably the most un-football thing in football. There is something intrinsically staged and showbiz about it – so it's no surprise that, for Americans, a bicycle kick direct from a corner in a home World Cup by a man with a funny moustache, a mullet and a fictional Hollywood boxer's name is about as relatable as it gets, even if he missed. In this split-second of glorious, sunlit failure, Balboa defines America's relationship to football. And if you think that's a stretch, listen to these commentators react to a bicycle kick scored just this season by itinerant Italian carthorse Amauri, from all of six yards. Pray they never whack the words "Trevor Sinclair Barnsley" into YouTube; you doubt they'd survive it.
Which brings us back, all the way back, to the man riling up the crowd in that first video: Robby Branom. Branom is, in a strictly biographical sense, a pretty pleasant-seeming white American guy who, according to the internet wormhole over my shoulder, got a solid degree and works at an energy company. But crucially, he is both all of this and someone who, in his spare time, goes down to the CenturyLink Field and functions as a "capo" for his beloved Seattle Sounders, leading his fellow fans in chants that he devised, he says, after the trips he makes to Europe "just about every summer... I've learned the trade, you know? How it really works."
I'm not sure which European summer league Mr Branom has been watching. I'm not sure to what extent this really "works":
I'm not saying that Americans aren't allowed to care about their football club. That would be absurd and especially cold-hearted given the circumstances – Seattle's appearance in the MLS Cup final will be the first in their history, and I will be thinking of Branom on Saturday, hoping that a man who has watched his side through years of relative mediocrity is entirely excited, hopeful and proud of his team, that he is exhilarated by the rare prospect of his love for Seattle Sounders being requited by success. But where it starts to jar for me is the naked, misplaced Anglophilia. I can't get past it.
When I try to pinpoint why Robby Branom makes me feel uncomfortable, I can think of lots of reasons. Perhaps it's because, like so many depressing forces at work in this country at the minute, he represents a yearning for an England that never really existed. Perhaps it's because his own childlike and apparently cynicism-free love for the game puts the desperate, angst-ridden seething I feel twice a week into sharp and unflattering relief. But perhaps it's just because it looks like a lot of unnecessary work trying so hard to be someone else. He makes me feel uneasy in the same way that actors in "immersive theatre experiences" do – you want to grab his face and shake him around, tell him that it's OK, that he doesn't have to pretend any more.
Fans of Toronto FC, the Sounders' opponents in Sunday's cup final, have a history of making themselves look like dickheads, too, most famously in the video below, where they launch into an impassioned chant of "the referee's a wanker":
Crucially, the game had yet to kick off, which means that rather than this being a targeted, ad hominem assault on whoever officiated it, the Toronto fans must have been railing instead against the abstract concept of the referee, the notion of some independent adjudicator imposing the laws of the sport rather than allowing it to descend into a free-for-all with no set laws, objective, beginning or end, a hallucinogenic scrimmage in a pit of mud, blood and shit that reaches out into eternity until it ceases to resemble a game at all and becomes a piece of performance art comparable in scale with global warming or modernism as one of humanity's grand historical projects. This, in fairness, sounds like a laugh, but it doesn't quite sit right coming from the mouths of North Americans, people who, as I've already argued at length, tend to prefer a bit more structure to their hobbies.
The apex of all this imported partisanship has arrived, unquestionably, in the fresh rivalry between New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, a hatred that nobody's calling the "Hudson River Derby". To give them their due, fans of the two clubs have shown they possess a flair for nomenclature – Red Bulls groups include the Garden State Ultras and the Viking Army Supporters Club, and they sit in designated parts of the Red Bull Arena known collectively as the "South Ward". The first official NYCFC fan group call themselves "the Third Rail" after the steel conductor rail that electrifies the city's subway system. These are all decent uses of words. Which only makes it all the more weird that, when fans of the two clubs had an underwhelming barney in New Jersey last August, they couldn't get a three-syllable chant right:
Also, it was outside a place proudly claiming to be "Newark's first gastro pub":
A battleground only outdone in irony levels by this Hard Rock Cafe:
Again, certain questions are raised, chiefly: What exactly is this rivalry – between a team bankrolled by an energy drink and another formed in 2015 – built upon? And is it really a loathing so deep-set that it's worth testing the patience of a load of American police officers, when American police officers carry guns, which are deadly weapons that those officers haven't exactly proven themselves shy of using?
And this is the crux, really: it is the terrace culture of English football that MLS fans are most clearly aping, and yet there are things about English football that you just can't ape. For example, you could argue that at the height of its infamy, English hooliganism was fuelled by a poisonous cocktail of dying industry, regional resentment, mass unemployment, racial tension, a war on class loyalty, cruel government, corrupt policing and fading empire. And you could argue that American hooliganism is fuelled by the mostly fictional account of a hobbit getting beaten up at a West Ham match. The two phenomena aren't really comparable, though that didn't stop these NYCFC fans – supporters of a club, remember, who were formed last year, bankrolled by Abu Dhabi oil money – throwing their weight behind the anti-corporate, anti-petrodollar "Against Modern Football" movement:
Despite our absence from the tournament itself, the World Cup that took place in the States in 1994 was in many ways a watershed moment for English football. It was the last World Cup before the Premier League and Sky had really taken off; the last World Cup before anyone here knew anything about leagues overseas beyond the fact that Gabriel Batistuta could hit a ball very hard; the last World Cup before Championship Manager and the internet and the importing of foreign players and coaches exploded; the last World Cup before we as a country, for better or worse, lost our footballing innocence, our ability to arrive every two years at an international tournament and not know the names on the shirts, the styles of play, the biographies beyond the funny haircuts. My overriding memories of USA '94 are of surprise and identity – teams that arrived as mysteries and left as distinct entities I still remember vividly to this day, an unusual number of whom were led by charismatic, dictatorial number 10s: Hagi, Stoichkov, Maradona, Baggio, Valderrama, Rai, Dahlin, Matthaus, Okocha, Scifo, Bergkamp. There was an absence of the familiarity and homogeneity that can sometimes spoil things today – which is why it feels a bit depressing to witness Americans attempting to ape English terrace culture.
Not that I wish Robby Branom anything but the best of luck in Sunday's game. I hope that Seattle win and that this first taste of glory helps him see that culture is something built from the ground up – out of memory, loyalty and time. And what would make me really happy is if Seattle's winning goal is a bicycle kick, scored directly from a corner, by a man with a funny moustache, a mullet and a fictional Hollywood boxer's name. Which would seem to rule out Tyrone Mears.
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