Because I’ve learned to love the beautiful game, I have friends in almost every continent on the globe. They are men, women, black, white, straight, gay, American, Irish, Australian, Hungarian, Nigerian, Israeli, you name it — through football, I have shared moments with so many folks I might never have met otherwise.
One in particular, remains engrained in my memory. Two days after Arsenal FC had lost the 2006 UEFA Champions League Final to FC Barcelona, I was walking in Hayes Valley wearing my Arsenal jacket. Coming towards me was a young man in a Thierry Henry Arsenal jersey.
We could not have been more different. I was white and aproaching middle-age and he was black and somewhere around 19. As we walked past one another, he reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. “You doing alright, man?” he asked, his words tinged with an island lilt. “I’m hanging in there.”, I replied. With a rueful smile, he said, “I know, I know, but it’ll be alright”.
Like many Americans, I came late to loving what the world calls football. Born and raised in San Francisco, my sports passions, for a long time, were limited to my local teams, the Forty-Niners, Giants, and Warriors. As to “soccer” I’d take a passing interest around World Cup time, but my lack of knowledge and understanding about the game’s finer points kept me from becoming truly emotionally invested.
Fortunately, a variety of factors conspired to open my eyes. A friendship with a rabid fan named Tony, a trip to North London to watch Arsenal Football Club play at Highbury, as well as the influence of my German brother-in-law Thomas — all these were essential to my entrée into loving football.
Now, I belong to a not-so-secret society whose members are all over the world. My self-identifiers now include “Gooner” (someone who supports Arsenal Football Club) “American Outlaw” (a passionate follower of the United States national teams), and simply, “football fan”. On behalf of Thomas, I follow “Der Club” ( FC Nürnberg) and the progress of the German national team. Provided they’re not playing the USA.
And it is a real community. The idea of the mindless thug supporter, the soccer “hooligan” has for the most part, given way to a more worldly fan. The majority of the football fans I meet tend to be more open, more sophisticated, more tech-savvy, more generous of spirit.
Here in the Bay Area, there are several organizations fueled by fans using football to do good works. The local branch of Street Soccer USA uses the game to transition young adults from homelessness while America Scores Bay Area teaches soccer and poetry to children in the Bay Area’s most challenged public schools. The latter currently has an initiative to put turf fields in 18 low-income public schools where kids have nothing but asphalt to play on.
Last month, I helped produce a benefit for Street Soccer USA centered around the MLS Cup Final. We packed the pub with supporters from all walks of life and raised money for a good cause. Meanwhile, local women’s team, the Bay Area Breeze instead of being idle in the offseason, chose to go out in the community to teach kids about health and exercise.
My Arsenal supporters group, the Bay Area Gooners regularly runs canned food drives for the San Francisco Food Bank, and has raised money for numerous causes from cancer research to Southern tornado relief to Japanese tsunami recovery. And yet, one of our members recently urged, “we can do more!”
I’m regularly in pubs at obscene hours of the morning when I could be watching from the comfort of my couch, because the enjoyment of seeing the match is enhanced a thousandfold by being with other supporters. Wherever I travel in the world, if I’m not able to take in a local match, I seek out a pub to watch football and have an opportunity to make new friends.