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England vs. USA

As someone who, like Luke, grew up in England and now thinks of himself as an American, I can sympathize with his decision not to watch on Saturday, out of a feeling that there's just Too Much There. 

I also strongly agree that America is awesome. People have an attitude of openness to possibilities, and to improving their lives, that you don't find anywhere else. There's less cynicism and poorly-disguised jealousy when good things happen to someone else. American girls are more interested than are English girls in English men—and some even play soccer. Also good: baseball, Barack Obama, air-conditioning, New York, Friday Night Lights, etc. The truth is that having been here for 16 years and getting ready to marry a girl from Queens this summer, I'm as American in my day-to-day life as any of my U.S.-born friends. Aside from a trip back to London every year or so—which I usually find pretty much unrecognizable from when I left—and an almost-faded accent that only comes out any more when I'm drunk, I find I have increasingly little in common with England. 

But it's because of all this, rather than despite it, that I've gone halfway across the world to support England on Saturday. It's become clear to me lately that being an England soccer fan (and typing the word “soccer,” by the way, still feels weirdly like something between a compromise and a betrayal) is just about the best way I still have to connect to the place I grew up.  

At first, loving English football was a way to create my own identity in distinction to my Californian parents, and particularly my Dad, who retained his essential American-ness even 25 years after moving to London. Aged 10, the night before the 1986 FA Cup Final (Liverpool, with Rush and Hansen, were playing Lineker's Everton), I suddenly and uncharacteristically announced to my mother that I was worried about fan violence at the game. This wasn't an outlandish concern at the time—the previous year, English clubs had been banned from European competition after rioting Liverpool fans had caused the deaths of Juventus supporters at the European Cup Final in Brussels. And the logic of my mother's response—that because Everton and Liverpool fans were from the same city, they would surely never want to beat each other up—was, I knew even then, hardly water-tight. But the truth was, I didn't give a toss about rioting. I wanted to go to the game. Or, more precisely, because I knew that wasn't really feasible, I wanted the game to be on the conversational front-burner in the Roth household, as I felt sure it was in the English households of my peers. 

By the time we lost on penalties to Germany in Italia ’90, there was no going back. An absurd amount of the conversation among my high-school friends for several years involved talking about Gazza or making fun of Graham Taylor's ridiculous team selections (Carlton Palmer on the left wing against Holland? I still can't get over it). It wasn't one of those things where this was a substitute for talking about our feelings or whatever. These were our feelings.   

Until recently, an essential part of this stance involved taking an attitude of either disdain or utter apathy (I could never quite settle on which) toward American soccer. The whole idea of US soccer success seemed vaguely like a threat. When the U.S. lost 2-1 to Iran in the ’98 World Cup, I cheered disgracefully along with the rest of the crowd in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Paris. I even was pleased when the Americans fell 1-0 to Germany (Germany!) in ’02. But lately that feeling has waned. That's in part because the American approach to soccer is less mechanistic, less soul-crushingly system-oriented, than it once was, as players like Dempsey and Donovan demonstrate. But it's also partly because, for whatever reason, the whole topic feels less fraught today, the need to take a stand against some other part of myself less pressing. 

Of course I'll be supporting England on Saturday. But unlike in previous years, I'll take no more pleasure in them beating America than I would in them beating Portugal—and less than them beating Germany or Argentina. And as I think about becoming a Dad—come on, if you've indulged me this long, do it for another sentence—one of the things I most look forward to is passing on my love of the England team to my son or daughter. But if, once they reach an appropriate age to make decisions about these things, they decide they want to support their own country, that will be fine.