Loyalties are strange things. Driving to play in a charity “World Cup” event over the weekend with a friend from Liverpool, he casually mentioned he was having trouble fully giving himself over to Wazza & Co. Why? There are no Evertonians in the squad. As the old “club trumps country” trope shows, some divisions are in geography, some are in the heart.
I've long suspected that sporting loyalties form roughly around the age of eight, surge powerfully for a few years, and never fully lapse (a similar process occurs with one's taste in music, in the mid-to-late teen years). I have lived in New York City twenty years and, while dutifully sitting through a few Yankees games, have never been able to shake an instinctual favoring of the Chicago White Sox—forged just before those almost-forgotten “winning ugly” years, in the decrepit crucible of Comiskey Park—skipping past all the local coverage in the Times to look at the narrative in agate of how things are going on the South Side (usually not so well).
And culturally, at age eight or so in the 1970s, “soccer” meant absolutely nothing to me. I knew vaguely of the Chicago Sting (with its roster of people, like Arno Steffenhagen, who I understood as somehow famous but meaning little to me when compared with, say, player-manager Don Kessenger); got a taste of clumsy soccer in phys ed (but otherwise did not play—nor did any of my friends); even dabbled amidst the “incredible realism” of Intellivision Soccer; but none of this was the stuff of lifelong infatuation. It wasn't until I packed off to college, falling in with a motley diaspora of global graduate students who had a weekly pick-up game; then spending the magical, barely-employed summer of 1990 enraptured by the Cup, that the game, oh so late in life, began to have meaning to me. And, after that, it was the English game I fell for, in part for the rituals and heritage, in part simply because it was beginning to become most easily available on American cable networks. But it still had the whiff of far-off novelty, coming into my home, as did the old Manchester Guardian-Le Monde-Washington Post airmailed newspaper, once a week. I think this rarity contributed to the appeal—one had to seek out the game rather than simply absorbing it—and I remember asking Matt Weiland, at the time he moved to London to work at Granta, if he was reveling in all the football he must be taking in. But rather, I sensed the opposite had occurred: Now that he was immersed in the proverbial motherland, it was all a bit much, as if the occasional rich dessert treat had become a cloying binge.
In any case, it was really the game, rather than any single club or country, that intrigued me. I know that sounds drippy and universalist, but without those early-forged bonds, those long walks with “me da” to the home ground on Saturday, how could it be any other way? This does not mean there were not flings, little jags of enthusiasm. These were often quite accidental. I remember a period in the early-1990s when, simply because the Scottish Premiere League was being shown on cable—there wasn't much else to watch, no dedicated Fox Soccer Channel—I developed an interest in the club Hearts of Midlothian, for reasons why I can no longer quite discern (perhaps their perennial runner-up status made them attractive to me; maybe it was just the maroon kit). And then, because a friend had taken me to see Chelsea, on my maiden voyage to England, Stamford Bridge became my spiritual center—you always fall for the first. Curiously, the Blues would actually later factor in my romantic life. On a trip to London with the object of my affection at the time, we had planned to take in a Chelsea match. Or at least I had cajoled her into so doing, which may have been the beginning of the end, for things began to fall apart somewhere south of Sloan Square. By the time game day rolled around, I was instructed to attend the game alone. The signal as to the state of our relationship, like a scarf dangling from a window, would be her appearance in the seat next to mine. Alas, she didn't, and apart from the emotional turmoil, what I remember from the afternoon is sitting next to (apart from an empty seat) a mechanic from British Airways wearing, of all things, a New York Yankees cap, and a beautifully worked goal from Gianfranco Zola. But just as that relationship foundered, so too did my love of Chelsea eventually subside—beginning the very moment they were transformed into a fashionable football powerhouse.
All of which is to say I go into this cup with a set of strange and shifting loyalties, which would probably collapse in contradiction if I thought about them too much—the sentimental attachments to England (which, like most sentimental attachments, are often based more on an idea than actuality), a proclivity towards the Netherlands founded on some hazy awareness of Dutch ancestry, and a reflexive tendency toward any underdog (and so, even though I once lived in Spain and have very real affinities, their universal status as favorites somehow dims my ardor). I think we're all at least partially subject to these conflicted or even invented loyalties, which for me is partially what makes the game so interesting. I'm thinking here of my Sunday game in Brooklyn, which I've played for more than ten years with a regular group of people who have come from all over the world to live here—the forward from Yemen who wears a Bierhoff jersey, the defender from Nigeria clad in Barcelona colors, the midfielder from Algeria who one day wore a Jets (!) jersey. And this is also what makes the World Cup so interesting; one of the particular curiosities (and pleasures) is finding that country to support once your own is gone (or in fact never made it), a team that for some ineffable reason awakens, for the span of a few weeks, an enthusiasm unfettered by history, obligation, and everything else to come along since childhood.