Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why I Follow Soccer

I didn’t follow soccer growing up. Like most other kids from the Washington, D.C. area in the 1990s, I lived and died for the Baltimore Orioles and Cal Ripken, Jr. My godmother took me to see him break Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games played. I will always remember the number: 2,131. We got back from Baltimore very late and my mother let me sleep in and miss school the next morning, knowing that this game was more important than a morning of arithmetic. When D.C. United came along in 1996, I remember hearing on the playground that they’d won the inaugural championship, but I only truly watched the sports my father followed: American football, basketball, and baseball. I would steal the sports page from him every morning and we’d commiserate about being Redskins fans as Gus Ferotte slammed his head into a wall. Soccer remained an integral part of my life as I played the game for my school, but I quit club soccer as I got older to focus on school and academics.

It wasn’t until I graduated from high school and had entered college that I began to miss the ebb and flow of the beautiful game. So one summer day I convinced a friend to come along to a D.C. United game at RFK Stadium. We sat on the quiet side of RFK (if you’ve seen D.C. United play at home, you know what side I’m talking about) and while we witnessed a 2-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo, I couldn’t shake the bouncing stands on the other side of the stadium. Clad in black, the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles drummed and sang and raised hell for 90 minutes. I knew I belonged over there.

My first game amongst the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, a 4-2 drubbing of the New York Redbulls (featuring a tremendous hat-trick from Ben Olsen) left me hooked and wanting more. As much as I love the team, I fell more in love with the fans and the game itself. In the Barra, you are transported outside of RFK, into the rhythms and songs of a Boca-River derby and into the camaraderie of the Anfield kop. You join the world’s game at RFK, but you get to remain in the United States. While some of my friends enjoy watching the English Premier League and the Champions League, they tell me to forget about MLS and its “inferior” level of play. And of course they are right. I can’t stand here and claim that the Columbus Crew stand a chance contending for the EPL crown against Chelsea and Liverpool. But that’s not what I want now. I want to smell the smoke bombs of the Barra Brava and taste the beer raining on my face when Jaime Moreno scores and know that it’s the same game, the same ball, the same pitch, in the same town where I was raised. I watch games in far-away European stadiums, but it’s the soccer of Washington, D.C that I truly love. Sure I’d prefer a single table and a larger salary cap in MLS (two things I hope will happen soon), but I’ll take the bearded Benny Olsen over that pretty boy Cristiano Ronaldo any day.

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