Sucka Free Soccer: Our Grass Is Plenty Green

BY MIKE VALLO

American soccer fans spend a lot of time discussing, debating and dwelling on our soccer culture. For many MLS fans, the lack of presence of their beloved local team in their city’s sports consciousness is a source of constant frustration. We yearn for a day when our teams are part of the local identity and culture–more than just another franchise.

Last week I witnessed that coveted connection between team and culture firsthand while visiting my brother who’s an English teacher in Istanbul. He lives on the European coast of the Bosphorus in a neighborhood called Beşiktaş. One of the trendiest and busiest areas of the ancient city, Beşiktaş is defined by its young and progressive population. And, of course, the neighborhood is also famous for the soccer club that bears its name.

While Beşiktaş is the third most popular team in Turkey, behind fellow Istanbul clubs Fenerbache and Galatasary, its fanbase is renowned for its passion and unique culture. Known as Halkin Takimi or “the people’s team” Beşiktaş is a left-leaning working class team, a rarity in Turkey. The clubs fans pride themselves on using their support to champion social causes and political issues that go beyond the soccer field. In a country where the societal margins are rarely explored, Beşiktaş is firmly on the fringe.

Even in the offseason the Black Eagles were everywhere. Shirts and scarfs filled the streets, pictures and pennants adorned restaurant walls, a fan shop was never more than a block away and, despite the silly season having just begun, every transfer rumor was a front-page story.

Of course that’s nothing compared to match day, something I was lucky enough to experience on a previous visit. From the time I stumbled onto the street for breakfast, the pubs were buzzing and bands of roving fans filled the air with songs. Come game time, the atmosphere in the stadium was incomparable to anything I’ve felt before or since. Even the Euro 2012 qualifier between Turkey and Belgium I’d attended a few days earlier seemed like a mild opening act (I dragged my poor brother to three games in an eight day span). The level of noise and participation was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Needless to say my brushes with Beşiktaş left me more than a little envious of their fans and fans of similarly beloved teams all over the world. If I had been plunked nearly anywhere else in the world, that level of fanaticism would be a weekly routine rather than a biannual treat. When I went online to check out highlights of a draw between two teams called New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA, that feeling was only exacerbated.

Then I saw the tribute to Juan Pablo Angel and my pity party was broken up faster than a high school kegger under the bleachers. The stands might have been half empty, but the love for JPA from the fans in the South Ward filled the Arena. It was a touching tip of the cap to a fan favorite that clearly meant a lot to the man himself.

Our love for JPA or a Revolution fan’s love for Taylor Twellman is no different than the love the Çarşı (Beşiktaş supporters) have for Metin Tekin or Manchester United fans have for Ryan Giggs. The euphoria of defeating a rivalry or the agony of failure is the same in the South Ward as it is in the Kop or the Curva Nord. However, American fans are unique because our support wasn’t a given.

Very few people inherited their MLS team from their father and none from their father’s father before them. None of us learned our team songs before we could read. None of us compared Metrostars gear with our elementary school friends. In fact most of us had to discover the sport itself on our own before ever making our way to the local MLS team. Maybe it was the cult favorite Soccer Made in Germany on PBS that caught your eye. Perhaps a bout of insomnia left you flicking through the channels and settling on some tape delayed Euro game at 3am. Or maybe, like me, you were so obsessed with FIFA World Cup 98 for Nintendo 64 that you decided to check out the real thing.

The vast majority of us who weren’t lucky enough to be raised with the game made a choice to become soccer fanatics. We put in the effort, renting every book tangentially related to soccer at the public library, begging our parents to shell out the cash for Fox Sports World and spending hours on the internet frantically exploring a world we were previously unaware of. We put up with our friends calling our game boring or a sport for girls (it is, by the way, just not exclusively). We shelled out the cash for pay-per-view or sought out obscure soccer-showing watering holes before ESPN offered wall to wall coverage of major tournaments. Even among fellow soccer-loving friends we had to suffer their insults to MLS and the local team. Giants Stadium, regular season shootouts, faith in the family night, mid-game commercials—we put up with all of it and more.

We’ve fought for our fandom.

The fact that our local clubs are not yet ingrained in their respective cities’ cultures is what makes American soccer fans great. In Manchester, Munich and Milan, the fans don’t endlessly hound their friends and acquaintances to attend a game in hopes of converting just one more person. I honestly think I’ve recruited more new Red Bulls fans than Chris Heck and I’m sure many of our readers can say the same. That feeling of responsibility for growing the sport or increasing support for the team just isn’t seen in already football-mad nations. It’s why my fellow South Ward members feel like family even if I only see them every other week in the summer and know nothing about their real lives. We are a cadre of the obsessed, surrounded by the apathetic and the scornful.

It might not be like Beşiktaş, but for me it’s perfect.

  • John

    Great piece Mike!