Can a culture be studied independent of the people within it? More specifically, can American soccer culture be studied and written about without talking to American soccer fans? One writer says Yes.
The New York Times, whose previous deep dives into American culture include insisting peas taste good in guacamole and telling a woman dying of cancer that she’s doing it wrong, ventured into territory few dare to tread with a sweeping trendpiece on American soccer culture.
The magazine feature, bearing the bouncy and upbeat title “The Dark Side of American Soccer Culture,” sets out to dig into the seamy underbelly of The Beautiful Game here in the States. Though primarily concerned with American soccer fans, the writer paints in broad strokes to reveal a picture of white suburban rage throughout the Western World bubbling to the surface, suggesting, in some subtle way, that the line between an MLS game and a Donald Trump rally is very thin indeed.
When you sit down to read a piece that starts with this:
”For the stunted American male, frustrated with the changing demographics of the country and gripped by the belief that his days on top are coming to an end, there may be no form of pornography more satisfying than watching a bunch of hard-drinking, pub-singing soccer fans with thick brogues beat the hell out of one another.”
… you know you’re in for a wild ride.
This hard-hitting reported feature unfolds from a perspective drawn from no interviews, no real data (apart from some television ratings figures quoted unattributed and out of context), and lengthy tangents on English hooliganism.
Apart from watching an ECS march at a remove, the article’s primary source is Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence by American journalist Bill Buford. In the book, Buford embedded himself in England’s football hooligan scene, opening that oft-misunderstood world up for a mainstream audience. It was, for a time, one of the definitive tomes on football supporter culture and the violence which accompanied it all too often.
The key word here is was. The book was published in 1990, years before the dawn of the Premier League era (and all the monied interests that upended English football’s traditional power structure) and with the country still raw from the Hillsborough disaster. It’s the same year that The Taylor Report was published, and well before the reforms the report dictated could be implemented. So while Buford’s book was an important piece of journalism at the time, and remains a fascinating example of culture reporting, it hasn’t aged particularly well, and doesn’t really have much to say about our globalized and capital-flush football culture.
But that didn’t stop the writer from using that book to underpin his impeachment of European supporter culture. And it surely didn’t stop him from trying to draw a connecting line between Sounders supporters singing an admittedly cringeworthy song and, say, the violent clashes in Marseille last month, or Chelsea fans harassing a black man on the subway in Paris. The writer’s thesis, such as it, characterizes American soccer fans as Europhile football LARPers, and, apparently, increasingly seduced by the more violent aspects of Europe’s supporter culture. It’s a connection made without really doing the legwork to make it stick, but it’s just enough for a casual observer to mistake for a genuine through-line.
The article then sets that aside to talk about Latino football fans and how they fit into American soccer culture. This angle is presented as novel, a first-of-its-kind exposing of a structural cultural flaw, even though plenty of outlets that cover soccer in the US have discussed this very racial divide. Like Fusion. And Howler Magazine. And us. And for all the article’s hand-wringing over the siloing of American soccer culture, it doesn’t even bother to draw a distinction between “Latinos” and “Mexicans.”
The article apes at being both an anthropological study and a cultural trendpiece, but it lacks the scientific rigor to pull off the former and the journalistic due diligence for the latter. It smacks of someone who saw a report on the supporter clashes in France on ABC World News Tonight, then found himself a little too close to CenturyLink Field after brunch, and declared, “why isn’t anyone talking about this?!” If the writer just bothered to use any of the interviews he (presumably) conducted while writing the piece, there might’ve been some real substance to it. As it is, the article is little more than a salad of stale takes paired with a shallow indictment of American masculinity.
There are plenty of interesting and important questions to ask in an interrogation of American soccer culture. It’s a shame this article wasn’t interested in any of them.