I had never been to the Netherlands before. Now I have been here five days. I have a bicycle, a classic Dutch “grandma bicycle” that I suspect is actually child-sized, and I’ve ridden it back and forth between the campus and the city center several times by now. My first non-food or transport-related purchase was a 2-CD set of Dutch World Cup songs.
That’s important because the first time the Netherlands entered into my consciousness as a place to live, it was through football. Or, more specifically, football books, the kinds that attempt to describe a country as seen through football. The Dutch, the books claimed, were particularly able to be understood through that medium, as they were not only a football-mad nation, but they were a football-mad nation who constantly debated and intellectualized the sport. They loved the artistry and the drama of the game. And they had a history of fantastically cool, intelligent players, the sort I fall in love with at whichever team I’m watching. And, of course, they had the archetype of that player in Johan Cruyff, the incredible, irascible football brain who in his heyday resembled anyone you’d see owning the room at a Seattle record store.
So it was football. But also, not football. The national character, described through football, was extremely appealing. Stylish, but not overtly florid. Reserved, but forthright when needed. Prone to discussion rather than argument. Knowing a good time, enjoying a good time, but not having it be everything. Basically, a very cool-looking form of moderation, which is a word that I’ve somewhat based a life philosophy around. It sounded like a populace I would appreciate, much like I’d appreciated the similar attitude in Seattle.
And, I’m a football fan. A football fan who likes to overintellectualize the sport, who likes to discuss it in terms of narrative and archetypes. The books gave me the impression that this was the standard in the Netherlands, or at least a large minority. I wanted that.
Of course, this was all at least a year before moving here became a real possibility, and then a fact. But they planted a thought that said there was potential here.
I have been asked many times, why the Netherlands? Why Utrecht? Mostly people are lightly baffled. There are only a few other Americans at the university. I tend to deflect the question as I can’t really answer it succinctly, or in a way I feel doesn’t sound totally ridiculous. It’s hard to describe to people I just met the itch I felt to change my situation and my life, the need to get out of not only the city, but get out of the country. The need to live for myself my dreams and ideas of Europe, and to see if they’d been worth having. I have always wanted to live here since I first found out what Europe was. I decided that if I was ever going to do it, I had to do it now, before I got too settled anywhere, before I got too old to consider graduate school and have it paid for. I have to decide on my life. I had to not have the sort of regret that makes up movies and television shows about midlife crises. I had to come here. I had no choice.
I mumble something about experiencing different medias, and end with a joke about Utrecht teaching in English. (Like all comedy it comes from a true place, as that was a major factor in thinking about the Netherlands in the first place.) It works well enough.
And I’m here now. That’s something. I’ve made it. I can’t say I’ll never have regrets about things now – I’m a worrier, I will always regret something – but not over life chances I didn’t take.
We’ll see how this all goes.
In the scheme of things I came to football late, and as much as it embarrasses me among all the people with longer histories and better claims to the sport, I have learned to admit to that. While I was aware of its existence for years, from playing as a child to reading Fever Pitch in high school, I didn’t actually start watching until after the 2006 World Cup. A few factors went into that, the biggest one that I turned 21 in May of 2006 and therefore could finally go to bars and watch games. But however it came to be, the 2006-2007 season was the first I ever watched from beginning to end.
For an Arsenal fan, this wasn’t a vintage season by any means, but it was still one with enough memorable moments to make an impression. And many of those moments revolved around a newly-signed Czech midfielder named Tomas Rosicky.
I was new- I was still learning what was good in a sport I’d only been barely adequate at as a player, even that only compared to the other 8-year-old girls at my elementary school, and had only watched a handful of times at a high level. I was still learning what I wanted to see in a player. I only vaguely knew the stars. But I knew that whenever I watched Tomas Rosicky play it was everything I wanted to see. An elegant passer with a terrier’s tenacity. A maker of exquisite shots and beautiful footwork without a bit of waste. He was the combination of beauty and practicality that is also a hallmark of much of my favorite art.
He was new to Arsenal. I was new to Arsenal. While others had their history and knowledge, I could have him, and we could forge a future. That was how it was supposed to work. It should have been just like that.
Instead, he got injured. I went to Europe in the summer and collected, somehow, one of his shirts from each team he’d played for anyway. The season started while I was there, and I hoped he would be better, for him and the team. At first it seemed to work, but by the winter he was gone. By the spring the hopes for the season were gone.
Rosicky disappeared for a while after that, and eventually it was as if he never existed. There wasn’t a big dramatic moment of injury that we could point to as why he wasn’t there any more, it was just that he wasn’t, and wouldn’t be, eventually for over a year. The immediacy of football fandom meant that effectively, he didn’t exist at Arsenal. We fans could not rely on him. We had to move on without him. We had to forget.
But I couldn’t. I am a sentimental person, and those first moments of memory meant that he would always be clear in my mind. I kept a little file in my head with a memory of each of his passes, his tackles, and those goals at Liverpool. I couldn’t forget him, because we were supposed to accomplish great things. With boundless optimism I maintained that once he recovered, he would be the answer to everything Arsenal needed.
I joke that I am drawn to the broken and the flawed. It’s not something that I believe is intentional. The best I can figure is that I am addicted to the narratives of football as much as I am addicted to the play of it. I want, deep down, my experience to be literary. I want my heroes to be characters worth reading about. The ones with unfulfilled potential, emotional vulnerabilities, and uncompromised principles. While I can certainly admire and appreciate other players, they don’t embed themselves the same way.
Tomas Rosicky might be fit again. He’s played superbly in two games so far. He’s had a full pre-season. I have never forgotten what he could do and how watching him play makes me feel. This could be my validation, or it could just be another bit of false hope, another chapter in my history of having my favorites be forever doomed. The narrative could go either way.
The headquarters bar of the American Outlaws Seattle chapter is a place called the Atlantic Crossing, a vaguely Anglo bar in a calmer district of town. For the pivotal US game against Algeria, the last game of the group stages of the World Cup, a game the US had to win to make it through to the knockout rounds, ESPN decided to set up a crew there for their reaction shots. They’d done this for the other games so far, and it was a declared honor that they’d picked us for this crucial game.
I was there, too. Up at five, in the bar by ten after six, wedged into a spot where I could see the TVs hung on the wall, and I’m not going to lie about this, well in the view of the cameras. I’m not immune to their draw.
The thing is, it’s not all about seeing yourself. Sure, there’s that element of vanity, of wanting the world (or just your parents) to see you on the screen. But the important thing, the premier desire for me and all of us, was that we gave a good impression of Seattle and our community. This was a chance to show off what we do here. Part of it was competitive- the chance to show that we not only stood up to, but were better than, what was already seen. (That what was already seen was New York and Chicago made it particularly important – those are major metropolises, but we feel like we’re as good as they are, better even, and we want to prove it.)
But one-upping Chicago was only a portion. It meant more to show the country and the world that we care. That despite the reams of articles about how Americans feel about soccer, there was as much passion and excitement here, in this bar, in this city, as anywhere in the world. We had to be proof.
For soccer in America, there is no unmediated experience. This is probably true of everywhere, but it’s particularly true here. While an increasing portion of us do go see games “live”, more of us watch games beamed over here on TV, and our historical experience is more likely to be through the screen than not. Even for those of us who go to MLS games, we take an influence from what we see in various forms of mediated interactions – games, pictures, message boards. And for the most part, the conduit is towards us. We’re presented with how things are done. It’s exciting to have it be the other way.
So we were maybe a little louder, a little brasher, even more excited and energetic than normal. There was an awareness of the cameras, of having the biggest sports media validation in the country looking to present an experience, and the pressure to be the best we’ve ever been. It was us, but also not us. It was more than us. It was us as shown in the shots of Brazilians partying on the streets with feather plumes and the Dutch in orange mohawk wigs. Us as the flow of images, the constant discussion.
Seven-thirty in the morning and I’m draping red, white, and blue table roll over the balcony of one of Seattle’s more popular concert venues. The doors open at eight and we’re trying to get it looking festive, ready to go. The venue’s tattooed and bearded staff is preparing as well, grumpily preparing bottles of champagne and Bloody Mary mix after a late night. I’ve heard that some of the staff slept there after the concert the previous night, and they’ve brought in staff from other bars in the area. They’re capping admittance at 650, and that’s expected to fill easily.
It’s June 12 and the USA is about to play England in their opening game of the World Cup.
Here’s where, normally, the article would have something patronizing about US fans, or some wondering about whether “football” will ever become big in the USA, or talking about what a novelty this all is. But this is Seattle and none of this is surprising. Whatever the rest of the world thinks, and whatever the rest of the country thinks, of course this is happening here. We get 36,000+ for our league games, why wouldn’t we get excited about the World Cup?
There are about a hundred or so lined up outside the venue by the time the OK is given to open the doors. The food vendor has changed their mind about opening up, but no one his that worried. There is enough beer and liquor in the four bars to keep us occupied, and if we must eat, there’s enough around the area to do so. Mostly, though, we’re just buzzing with anticipation, excited for this game we’ve been anticipating for so long. This particular event has been long in planning by the Seattle chapter of the American Outlaws, a nationwide supporter’s group dedicated to the USMNT.
Supporter’s groups are part of the American fan experience just like they are everywhere else. Like everything American, they’re a hodgepodge of influences and experiences from all over the world. In Seattle for the Sounders there are South American drums and German-style chant leading, songs adapted from Greece and England, in other cities a bigger or lesser mix of elements from all the regions of the world. We try to see how everyone else is doing things and borrow what we think we can do and what we like. We hold ourselves up to the standards of the Europeans, based on what we see on message boards and chats with the visitors that don’t just assume we don’t know what we’re doing because we’re American. We’re constantly working to improve.
Just like in so many other cultural fields, Europe is a major source of validity. We want to do things like they do them over there, because that’s the right way, the authentic way. It’s certainly worth an argument whether the devotion towards European forms is a good or bad thing, whether we’re establishing our own culture or not, but what it boils down to is that we like it like this. If we wanted to support our teams like traditional American teams did, we wouldn’t do what we do now. We want to sing, to make tifo, to be part of a supporter’s group like they do over there. Besides, what is American anything but transformed versions of older forms and combinations that no one else would ever dream of doing? And like every other cultural form, eventually, surely, we’ll make it over in our own image.
The venue crowds, and the bouncers are turning people away 40 minutes before the 11:30 AM kickoff. I hear later that it’s at 671, a bit more than we were told were allowed. Accounts from all over the city say that bars in other neighborhoods are crowded like this, spilling over capacity in all the bars that were smart enough to have an early opening. I can’t imagine any bar with a TV not being open. This game is huge here.
Part of that, a good part, is England. While to those involved in supporter’s culture, continental Europe is king, to everyone else into soccer is focused on England. Even those of us who are involved in supporter’s culture have an Anglophilia that can’t be shaken, even as we talk about the terrible things EPL clubs do to their fans and how bloated they are. England has an allure to everyone, but they’re particularly prominent to Americans. A shared language and a “special relationship” between the two countries means that we’re closer to England than we are to anyone else in the tournament, and that unless we’re one of the few to have a parent from the old country (any old country), that’s how we got into the game. They are validity.
But we’re starting to believe in ourselves a little too, even here in Seattle, which has never embraced the overwhelming idea of America in the way other cities and regions have. Seattle is Seattle, and if it looks beyond that it’s just to its greater region, which is a trait shared throughout the Pacific Northwest. It’s a different attitude and atmosphere up here. Even beyond the soccer that’s evident. It carries into the soccer, but we’re coming around. We like being local and this is what we’ve got right now.
The game kicks off. Upstairs, downstairs, side bar, all is packed. The floor vibrates with USA chants and nerves. We groan, ashen-faced, as Gerrard scores early and cheer with every managed clearance. The place erupts as Dempsey’s shot trickles through Robert Green’s fingers.
When all is said and done, we’re drunken, exhausted, and happy. The crowd trickles away, blinking in the unfamiliar sunlight, flags fluttering. Some of us stay in clusters to chat strategy for the next games and the other games we’re excited to see. Throughout the city, bars look like this. Throughout the country, these scenes are replicated.
Be patronizing if you’d like.
I am obsessed with this right now.
This is France’s Eurovision entry, a song called Allez, Ola, Ole by a guy named Jessy Matador. It is also France’s World Cup song, because apparently they didn’t feel like finding two songs in France. It is all beat and extremely insistent synths and a football-chant chorus that has been in my head for three days straight.
As football and Eurovision are my two favorite things, needless to say, I have fallen hard.
I am fascinated by the past three years of France in Eurovision. In 2008, it was Sebastian Tellier, an odd choice for Europe’s biggest pop song contest. He submitted a song from an album that was produced by one of Daft Punk, that had a pre-release in American Apparel stores. He was connected to and part of the hip French electronic music scene, which makes an impact among cultural elites worldwide. He produced a performance that was a different and shambolic as probably expected, involving a golf cart, female backup singers in his trademark beard, helium, and an inserted French verse because certain figures in the government got annoyed at the lack of one. Experimental for the song contest, it was an acknowledgement of what might be France’s most important musical exports right now. It did not do particularly well with the voters.
Last year, France went super-traditional. A tres-French cabaret ballad performed by a legitimate “big star”, Patricia Kaas. Extremely popular for over two decades in France, Central Europe, and parts of Asia, she was a much more traditional choice for performer, although a bigger star than normal for Eurovision, and a much more traditional sort of song compared to the year prior. It felt like exactly what you think of when you think of French pop songs. It did rather well, coming in 8th.
This year, another change, another direction. Jessy Matador was born in the DRC Congo. While a relative unknown, compared to Kaas and Tellier, he had a hit last summer and released an album in the fall called “African New Style.” His style is much poppier and dancier than his predecessors, but especially more African. In a year with an upcoming World Cup in Africa, this makes obvious commercial sense, but it’s also a third presentation of France in as many years. In a country with the racial issues of France, what is it that the chosen representation on this major stage is as African as it is? Is it an optimist sort of “these African young people are French too” or a cynical one? Because it wasn’t chosen by the people of France- France is one of the countries where a committee choses the Eurovision songs, which makes every selection a very deliberate presentation by a group of cultural elites. The trio of Tellier, Kaas, and Matador – the hipster, the traditionalist, the urban minority – were chosen specifically by people who, in theory, know what they’re doing and know what kind of statement they’re making, both immediately and in context of the others.
However, the point stands that Allez Ola Ole is ridiculously, stupidly catchy, and I will listen to it a thousand more times between now and July 11.
The name on the comment thread was a mixture of Timbers and Portland and gunner – just another person on one of the endless chain of Arsenal blogs. I was there too, to discuss whether or not to spend money and who or who not to buy. In that space, we were on the same side. Normally, though, the mention of Portland and the Timbers is a way to make me instantly up for a fight.
This is American fandom, so often. Unlike the century-old clubs of Europe and South America, we are new. Sure, I can stretch the Sounders, and the rivalry with the Timbers, back to before I was born, and MLS existed since I was a tween playing the game myself, but that’s not how I fell in love with the game. That’s not how most of the people I met fell in love with the game. There was something that brought us here.
Before I was a Sounders fan I was an Arsenal fan. It was my devotion, and I can’t say that’s changed. It now has to share the space in my head devoted to minutae, emotional control, and the makeup of my Saturdays, but it doesn’t just leave like that. It’s similar throughout the world of MLS fandom. The most devoted of us can give up our foreign loves and recommit myself completely to the domestic cause, but the rest of us aren’t able to give up our teams so easily.
So what do I do? I compartmentalize. I have Arsenal here, I have Hertha BSC there, I have the Sounders at home. They’re all a part of me, each with their own personal histories. And I can’t just give them up.
A lot of us feel this way. It’s not a question of who is number one and who is number two, it’s a question of balance. We have to be fans of both (or more) at the same time, and it works far better than people who aren’t in the States realize. I wouldn’t call the identity split seamless, but it’s close.
Maybe being an American makes it easier. Our identity is based on pluralities- we know our family history and can trace back where we came from. Sometimes we go back just to see. We’re American, but we’re also Polish or Irish or a thousand other things. One is immediate, but we don’t let the other ones go. There are degrees of how much we hold onto where we came from, but it’s always there.
I’m not saying it’s the same. There’s a sense of choice for football fandom that makes it markedly different from questions of national identity. But maybe we’re a bit more comfortable with divided identities. It’s to be expected here.
I have a thing for music videos.
I always have, as long as I can remember music videos, which is just about as long as I can remember. I think one of my earliest memories is, in fact, of the video for Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. (Boy George is wandering around a pool for some reason. I remember his outfit.) When I was younger we watched MTV every morning as we ate breakfast, before going off to elementary school. I know the video for California Love better than I know its source material. Even as music videos became harder to find on television, I sought them out.
They’re also how I think about music. When I was little I would lean my head against the car window and think I was in one. The only things that have changed since is that now it’s headphones and walking. I tend to hear certain songs and visualize them as videos, imagining each part. Sometimes they’re incredibly vivid. Here’s one of them.
The Pussycat Dolls: When I Grow Up
This song is an integral part of one of my favorite recent playlists, which I’ve called “fembot.” Its concept is music for and/or by female robots. What I like about this song is its air of menace, the way it sort of threatens girls dreaming of fame even as it glorifies them. The sirens, the robot-factory noises, the way the singer’s voice goes up into a weird little yelp in the chorus, the relentless marital beat, it all makes it sound like a scene in a dystopic sci-fi novel. It is a pop song that has been engineered and programmed within an inch of its life. It is awesomely robotic. It’s definitely what I was looking for with the fembot list- every part sounds like the Pussycat Dolls are marching at the head of an identical army of scantily-clad girl robots.
The video starts like this- the lead singer (I assume there is one, I really don’t know much about the group), walking down the street, doing the first whispered lines into the camera. She’s completely glammed up, with some lens-flare sparkle effects going on and everything. The camera then pans to a girl, maybe 12-13, and then the song proper starts.
She watches TV and sees the Pussycat Dolls on it. She stands in her room, lip-synchs the song into a mirror. She walks down the street and sees their posters. As she’s walking, she sees a storefront for something that says “FAME LESSONS” or something of the like that’s less stupid. She goes in. First chorus and she’s explaining to the headmaster that “when I grow up, I wanna be famous, wanna be a star”, etc. The headmaster does the “be careful what you wish for” line. She signs a contract and is brought into the back.
It’s a massive factory- all gears and neon lights. She’s strapped into a machine. I’m picturing it a bit like one of those gyroscope things they train astronauts on, circular, with straps and supports and things. As she sings the next parts (this is about 1:30 onward) she’s started down the conveyor belt of the factory. The other girls in the group are introduced, behind her on the belt, and are given lines to sing. At the chorus, she gets aged, made up, dressed. Breasts are screwed on. Hair is changed. She’s now transformed into the lead singer. The “be careful what you wish for” lines are done this time by the rest of the group, who have also been changed.
The first bits of the bridge are probably the most vivid for me. The girls are spun into an upright position, a different one for each line, and then removed from their machines/molds as perfect pop stars, ready for the chorus. This chorus, they do one of those standard “do a choreographed dance/walk down an alley” routines you see in just about every video- totally glammed up, short skirts, lens flares, full makeup, hair blowing, etc. The alley turns into a red carpet, and they’re still doing their dance as paparazzi flashes go off. And as it ends, there’s another 12-13 year old girl watching wonderously as the scenes unfold on TV.
That’s what I see when I watch this song.
I may be thinking too much about this.