No more on the blind side

From being an impossibly remote entity in the early 1990s, football in the US has since grown to be a popular and accessible game

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 15 June, 2018

I grew up as a football fan in the US during the early 1990s, an experience akin to growing up as a tree in a desert. There was water to be found, but you had to dig rather deep. This was a time before the World Cup arrived in America in 1994, before the US even had a professional league, when there were rarely highlights of European club or international football on TV, and when our only snippets of football news came through my father’s transistor radio tuned to the BBC (which he himself listened to for cricket scores) and from the occasional listing of results in very small print in the sports pages of The New York Times, lines of text that always read to my brother and me like secret code from a faraway world.

I’m too young to justify being either nostalgic or curmudgeonly, but it is quite astonishing how long ago that time feels. We’re now inundated with information, and through social media and the internet we can feel immediately connected to events continents away. The Mumbai-based writer and football-aficionado Supriya Nair movingly describes the experience of watching her beloved AC Milan (an Italian club team) physically alone in her living room in the middle of the night, but in the company of multitudes through “the joy of a second screen”, the immediate connectivity enabled by her phone. Where once only the crowd in the stadium framed a match, now the crowd takes shape in other ways, through exultation on Twitter, weeping on Facebook, berating the referee (and his father, and possibly even his father’s father) on WhatsApp, and finding through touchscreen a sense of community formerly restricted to the terraces of football grounds.

In the last 20 years, football has become much more popular and readily available in the US. As in India, the English Premier League has won a significant following here, likewise the Spanish and German leagues. The domestic professional league, formed in 1996, is in good health and expanding. You see more young Americans every year wearing Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo shirts, as the heavily-marketed superstars win more supplicants. Arsenal, the English club team my brother and I support, has at least four dedicated bars across New York City where fans can gather to watch the matches, singing English football chants in affected English accents.

Independent of this globalised trend, there exists a considerably more powerful football demographic in the country. The most watched football competition in America is not the domestic league, or the English Premier League, or Spain’s La Liga, or even international-level football, but by some distance the Mexican league. Nearly 40 million people in the US (11 per cent of the country) identify as either Mexican or Mexican American according to 2016 census data. That enormous constituency, often invisible to the mainstream English-language media, were the first to force football regularly onto American airwaves.

Back in the ’90s, football felt impossibly remote even from our vantage point in cosmopolitan New York. We didn’t hear people talking about it on the street. It was largely absent from American popular culture. Cursed with a scarcity of information, we had to consign the sport to a place of imagination and myth and search for more immediate gratification. There was a misguided dalliance with baseball, followed by an auxiliary love for ice hockey, a sport that, though played on ice by helmeted men (principally beefy Canadians) who barrel into each other while chasing a disc of frozen rubber, still had the virtue of being the most similar North American game to football. Sightings of the beautiful game itself were few and far between.

But there was one oasis that would occasionally hove into view. American cable TV was home to a scattering of Spanish-language channels that catered to the ever-growing Latino population, people who came from Spanish-speaking countries mostly in Central America and the Caribbean. Every weekend, those channels would bring Mexican domestic football to the US.

We didn’t have those channels at home, but passing a restaurant or cornershop, my brother and I would sometimes catch a glimpse of a boxy TV inside, its screen fixed with the immediately recognisable band of green of a football pitch. (I’m still to this day helpless in the face of that green, my mind emptying as football fills my eyes.) For some moments, my brother and I would stand transfixed, staring from the outside at the fuzzy movements of players we did not know on teams we did not know in places we did not know all narrated in a language we did not know, before one of our parents tugged us along. We’d bob through the streets, suffused with the green glow of the sport whose mere glimmer seemed to us an impossible magic.

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