The graceful ballet performed each week by Lionel Messi, Kaka, and their respective team mates isn’t just entertaining, or game-changing, or merely the key to Madrid’s and Barca’s domination of La Liga Primera. What it is, undeniably, is Spanish. What it is is continental. Likewise, the robust, unyielding direct assaults by the likes of Wayne Rooney and those United behind him are as British as they are unstoppable. To state the obvious: national character informs style of play.
So where does the Union fall on that spectrum? What is American soccer? Philadelphian soccer? How does the nation that gave us both Thomas Jefferson and Carrot Top express itself on the pitch? How so the city that gave us Ben Franklin and Green Man?
That every country’s top league is a reflection of its national spirit is true, even given that most FC’s include at least as many resident foreigners as locals. The Justice League amalgamations that characterize a great club are the natural product of the global marketplace, sure, but in no case does the influence of so many from abroad manage to overwhelm the league’s basic idiom. When in Rome, international soccer players must, on some level, do as the Romans do: dive.
Just kidding. I would never characterize Italian soccer as a theater of melodramatic attempts to gain free kicks and penalties. That would be as rude as it is inaccurate. But the point remains the same – English play like English, even when they’re African; Spanish play Spanish, even if they don’t know paella from a chalupa. The melting pot effect is undeniable.
For the most glaring example, one needs look no further than the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, by far one of the world’s greatest athletes-cum-underwear models. Brilliant as he is, skilled as he is, ovulation-inducing though his sculpted abs may be, his record-setting, opponent-embarrassing, Chelsea-terrifying antics at Manchester were never really…English, were they? The boy could free-kick the hairs of an Anglican gnat’s ass, but he could never, despite his best efforts, fit in. In the end, he made for Madrid the way Kipling’s Mowgli made for the human village, to be free and happy with his own kind. Not his own genetic kind, of course, but his own football kind – players who move the ball with a fluidity rivaled only by actual fluids, who attack in curves and waves, who move in the moment and play a given situation as it is rather than try to bend it to their will. This is La Liga soccer – it is smooth. It is soft. It is grace incarnate, and when the ball spins into the netting, it has gotten there because men like Gonzalo Higuain and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have acted as agents of its will, rather than placed it there by virtue of their own.
English soccer is almost exactly the opposite. The English imperial spirit is alive and well on the pitch, as the Queen’s men seek to dominate, through superior organization, planning, and barrel-chested huff, the course of the game and the path of the ball. When that blessed servant of the people Wayne Rooney puts foot to synthetic leather, he is commanding it to rocket directly past that fellow with the gloves and into the heart of darkness like the sword of Britannia into the bosom of the uncivilized world. The opportunity to strike has arisen because other English (in the football sense) players have decided where the ball is going today, and imposed that vision upon reality – Alex Ferguson, thy will be done. Rooney’s current golden age is the direct result of being un-tethered from the square peg that was Ronaldo in the round hole of the English game. One wonders if the disparity between Dimitar Berbatov’s obvious talent and his often mellow performance is the result of some Bulgarian version of that very syndrome.
The rest of the world’s styles can be stereotyped broadly: Central and South American soccer = technicality + bravado. When such players, in club or national teams, face those of the Eastern Hemisphere, it is truly a weighing of individual brilliance versus cohesion. Little can be said of African soccer, as it doesn’t come on Fox, and as the motherland’s best in all fields inevitably fall prey to the “œbrain drain” syndrome that has robbed the continent of its greatest everythings. As for Asians, I only follow one: a diminutive, mop-topped Korean hero named Ji Sung Park. He is another key example of how a failure to assimilate culturally can cost one. Ji Sung Park could have scored countless more goals by now, but his inimitable selflessness and Confucian devotion to the greater good has left him bereft of individual accolades despite his being one of the main reasons for Sir Alex’s happiness.
And so we come to the New World, and more specifically to the birthplace of the American Republic, Philadelphia. How does the Union fit into the scheme of world soccer, or “football,” as people who use bidets call it?
If American soccer is anything like American culture, it can’t be singularly described. What’s true on one end is not true on the other, nor so in the middle. So let’s analyze Philadelphian soccer thus far. Our first few games have revealed a few things.
- They are a young team and must stumble before they can sprint.
- They have heart. Real heart.
- They are not afraid to get physical. (Reader, forgive the understatement.)
Our footballing character can be fairly well surmised by these three observations. Our team’s relative youth, like our nation’s, leaves us lacking a certain . . . refinement. Mistakes, miscues, and missed opportunities have been as avoidable as they were cringe-worthy. Communication is an issue. We must work in soccer, as in national life, to understand each other’s intentions and be at the right place at the right time to succeed as one despite our differences. And we must be sure to follow through on those intentions faithfully.
That said, the Union’s resolve has been nothing short of epic. Our boys began their first game seemingly under the impression that they were going to win as a matter of course. When that proved unrealistic, there was not a single moment in 90+ minutes during which the Union acted the defeated team. Note also the team’s attitude after losing Califf in Toronto – no panicked hunkering down into defensive mode, no confusion or loss of moral. They simply applied a little extra help in midfield and pushed forward as if no one had been clothes-lined. In both cases, what they lacked in precision, they made up for in sheer stick-to-itiveness. The heart required to maintain such attitude after being dealt a blow or two is a precious commodity, one that will serve them well once it’s combined with time-earned cohesion. In all, the Philadelphia Union have faced all comers with the same illogical optimism that saw this nation through the Revolution, the Great Depression, and nine seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond.
Lastly, there is one very American, very Philadelphian trait that has shone through. Our be-hawked team captain earned our team’s first official caution less than 35 seconds into the start of our first season. This set the tone for what would be described as hard-nosedness, “physical” play, and blatant bullying. In no way does this blogger celebrate fouls or a lack of sportsmanship (the sending off of Toni Stahl was entirely appropriate, and Califf has taken responsibility for his inexcusable move in Canada). But we, Americans, and we, Philadelphians (and greater Philadelphia suburbians), have always made one thing clear: Take us on at your own risk.
You may beat us. You may deny us the prize. But our brashness, our pride, and our stalwart nature won’t allow you to walk away without a limp, or to look with anything resembling confident ease to the next time we meet. We thrive on bad odds, because it is in the nature of a people who would make America, and Philadelphia. It is in the nature of a people who would dare the powers that be to deny our self-determination. This is why our crowd cheers when the opponent goes down, and jeers when he does anything other than dust himself off and carry on. You may win the game, but you will be sore tomorrow. It’s not bullying, or crassness. It’s simple, sheer American toughness. For better or worse, it’s our defining characteristic, the one that the Union now proudly deposits into the totality of world soccer.
Conor O’Grady also writes for Philly Union Talk.
(Photo: Paul Rudderow)