Category Archives: soccer

Reminiscence Bump

One of Night Owl’s recent posts involved memory and baseball cards as he grappled with his mother showing the first signs dementia (or worse)* and how things like music and baseball cards can trigger memories from decades ago.

*A story which reminded me of my grandmother who succumbed to dementia in the late 1990s (well she died in the early 2000s but by then there was no one home). As she regressed further into her past we’d still make small talk when we visited just to try and keep her brain working. One fall day we mentioned the upcoming World Series and jokingly asked her if she’d followed who was in the Series that year. She screwed up her face and guessed, “Yankees?” Which was both correct for the season as well as an accurate representation of where her reminiscence bump would fall.

It’s a wonderfully thoughtful and vulnerable post since it’s always awful to see someone going through the experience of slowly losing a loved one. It’s also a post which suggested that we could all think about our cards and our memory and how specific cards bring us back to specific moments in our youth.

This is the virtual card version of that scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack reorganizes his record collection autobiographically. One card per year of my collecting lifetime. With my memories of that year and the card attached.

1985

I wasn’t into cards yet. Heck I wasn’t even in Little League. My parents didn’t want anything to do with the overly-involved Little League parents and wanted me to be running around instead. So soccer it was and besides kind of wanting to be in Little League with my friends baseball wasn’t even on my radar.

I remember a friend of mine giving me this card right before soccer practice some time in 1986. No idea why he gave it to me. I’m not even sure why I kept it but I stuck it in my sock and my shinguard kept it “flat” against my shin.

It then got buried in my desk until July 1987 when I went looking for it after Eric Show hit Andre Dawson in the face. I had remembered it was a Padres pitcher. I was surprised to find that it was the Padres pitcher who the Giants had just traded for instead. I had no idea it was the pitcher who’d feature in one of the most amazing games I’d ever attend.

1987

I’ve mentioned it before but for whatever reason this card reminds me of my first year of ripping packs and really getting into the hobby. I remember browsing the rack packs at Toys R Us but I want to say my first pack was a surprise from my mom after she picked me up from school.

I usually took the bus after school so being picked up meant I had some programmed after-school activity instead. My memories are of opening my pack while sitting in the front seat on the ride home. I think I got a Dave Winfield Glossy All Star but the Magadan stood out to me most with all the promise that a “Future Star” holds.

1988

It’s hard to understate how amazing 1988 Score was as a set. Its thunder got stolen by Upper Deck the following year but in terms of paradigm shifts in the hobby, I’d argue that 1988 Score was even bigger.

I had been in the hobby over a year now and had matured greatly as a collector. I no longer browsed the rack packs at Toys R Us for my new cards. Instead I had discovered a local card shop (LCS) located kitty corner from where I had piano lessons. I suspect I begged to go there every weekend and I know my mom indulged me and took me there a lot more than I’d want to take my kids to any such shop now.

My LCS helped me settle into accepting the Topps/Donruss/Fleer hegemony as it stocked wax boxes of all three brands all the way back to 1980. It was my goal to be able to buy and open a pack of each of those.* Then one weekend afternoon I discovered a new brand on the counter.

*I never did buy 1983 Fleer or 1984 Donruss but I did manage to rip a pack of everything else.

The packs weren’t too expensive so of course I bought one.

Mind. Blown.

So much color and those photos. They were like nothing I’d seen before. Batters mid-swing where you could see the baseball as an oblong blur were pretty amazing but the catcher cards were where the set really shone and the Tony Pena was in a class of its own. I didn’t know cards could look like this and that’s before getting to the encyclopedic backs.

1989

Donell Nixon 1989 Score

What a year. It started off with Gregg Jeffries mania. Quickly became Billy Ripken mania. And by the fall all was forgotten in favor of Ken Griffey Jr mania. For me it was pretty magical. My collecting world changed completely with a trip to Philadelphia and this Donell Nixon autograph which I’ve blogged about before. I also ramped up my collecting by getting team sets of Giants from all the major releases this year.

1990

I looked forward to a lot of the 1990 sets because, despite the loss, I knew the Giants were going to feature in all the World Series cards. I wasn’t disappointed but this Score card caught me by surprise by being willing to recognize the seriousness of the event and how there are things bigger than the game.

In some ways 1990 topped 1989 for me baseballwise. I was that kid who was at the earthquake game. I went to the College World Series. I joined the Baseball Card Club in my Junior High. I was able to afford more cards and actually stay on top of the hobby to my satisfaction. The perfect balance between having money to spend and literally no other interests or obligations to spend it on.

Yeah my Junior High had a baseball card club. We knew better than to bring our cards out during class but during lunch we could buy/trade/rip and enjoy the hobby. I saw some cool pulls but the two big highlights were winning a set of 1990 Upper Deck Extended (I figured out the pattern first) and getting fingerprinted by the police when someone robbed a local card shop and they thought it might be someone in the club.

1991

By 1991 I was deep into the autograph thing. The Stanford Alumni Game was my main event each year and the rapid increase in #1 draft pick cards across the hobby meant that I got excited to see guys I’d been watching at Sunken Diamond the previous spring show up on cards.

I could’ve chosen a number of cards here (I mentioned Steve Chitren in a previous post) but Mussina really captures everything about this year. He’s a guy I watched play in college. He’s a rookie I “invested” in because that’s what we thought we were supposed to do with cards then. And he’s one of my big autograph gets from when I started hitting the Alumni game in earnest.

I had gotten a few of his autographs the previous season* but finding this card in my set of 1991 Score that I got for Christmas** was super exciting and I know I looked forward to bringing it to the Alumni game the next month.***

*I remember him signing my all-session NCAA Regionals ticket and commenting on my being a true fan.

**I had saved up Bazooka comics and redeemed them for a Topps set earlier that year.

***Yup. One of the best things about growing up on the West Coast is that baseball started in January.

1992

It wasn’t just the alumni games. I loved the Team USA cards in Topps Traded and used to set aside all the cards of guys who’d be playing at Stanford* the following spring. Some of this was going a bit crazy with the rookie speculation but it was also still a novelty to have real Topps cards of those guys.

*Either Stanford players, Pac 10 players, or standard opponents like Cal State Fullerton.

Willie Adams is six years older than me. That means nothing now but when I was only barely a teenager? That’s huge. And at 6’7″ he was huge too. I was pushing six feet by then but I remember Willie’s dad asking him to “sign for the little guy” when I approached him with my card.

1993

This was another magical year. The Giants had a fantastic season (shame about the ending). I went to Spring Training for the first time. Lots of autographs and good baseball experiences. But in some ways what I remember most was tormenting my soccer coach with those Hostess Baseballs.

As a soccer player I was supposed to hate baseball. A lot of this was backlash to the way soccer was often portrayed as being “foreign” compared to baseball’s status as an “American” thing but I think it went deeper than that too. Anyway my coach was an inveterate baseball hater AND a health food nut so those Hostess Baseballs had him recoiling in abject horror. I’m surprised I didn’t have to run laps all practice.

I didn’t actually like the cupcakes that much. I preferred chocolate and the baseballs were boring vanilla and just sweet. But they came with cards in the package so I had to buy some.

1994

I found all my 1994 cards in a shoebox last summer. Once the strike hit I dropped everything and none of those have any specific memories attached to them aside from “oh yeah I told this hobby to shove it.”

The only 1994 cards I didn’t shoebox were the Nabisco All Star Legends. Those were still cool and a super-affordable way of getting Hall of Famer autographs. I remember being excited to see who was on the checklist and who I wanted to order. Gibson was a no-brainer when I saw the list this year.

1996

Not a card since I was no longer collecting but I went to Spring Training in 1996* and while I was no longer pursuing autographs in a big way I was still hanging over the rail just in case. Garagiola wasn’t worth a ball for me but I had a bunch of blank cards handy. As a result this was one of a handful of signatures I collected after I gave up the hobby.

*I’d gone in 1993 and 1994 but skipped 1995 for replacement players and anger at the whole thing reasons.

1997

I wasn’t collecting cards but I still enjoyed the Mothers Cookies Stadium Giveaway and trading cards with other fans. Plus that Giants-Dodgers pennant race was fantastic. After a couple of years in the wilderness, the 1997 season kind of brought me back to liking the sport again.

I played hooky from my summer job to go to that late-summer Giants-Dodgers game which Brian Johnson won in extra innings. As exciting as the game-winning home run was, Rod Beck getting out of a bases-loaded jam also brought the crowd to its feet. I miss closers whose out pitches also functioned as double play inducers.

1998

My last year of collecting in any form for almost two decade. I was still going to baseball card day but I was no longer trading cards there. Which is why I found myself with eight Alex Diaz cards when I went through my collection at my parents’ house.

While I still enjoyed going to games, things had started to intrude on my life as I hit the back stretch of college and my summers started to have to be more “productive” as I began to look forward to all the possibilities.

2016

Fast forward 28 years in which I’ve not even really thought about cards and now I’m a stay-at-home dad living in New Jersey with two sons who are just getting into sports. Soccer mostly at this point which is why I don’t have a baseball card here.

Heck, it’s not even a card I own. But that Fall my mom sent my sons each a surprise pack of soccer cards. She’d noticed their burgeoning interest in sports as well and, I suspect, wanted to give me a taste of my own medicine. She mentioned in her letter that she’d gone to the same card shop I used to frequent starting way back in 1988. It was no longer kitty corner to my piano lessons nor was it owned by the same guy, but it was the same shop and according to her felt very familiar.

This caused me to want to visit the store again but also seeing my kids enjoy ripping packs just planted the collecting seed in my head. That my eldest pulled a Messi card—my being a Barcelona fan meant that he actually knew and was excited by the pull—was kind of icing on the cake. It reminded me again how much fun cards were and how much I liked them and totally primed me to be pulled in when the SABR Baseball Cards blog launched later that winter.

Rabbit hole

This thing where pre-war cards get surprisingly affordable when you move away from the heavy hitters of baseball and boxing is dangerous territory. I saw someone post a card on Twitter and did a quick ebay search to see how expensive it was. I was not prepared to find out how low the price was and couldn’t resist plumping for it (as well as some others because of combined shipping reasons).

Oh, and the low price? It was for the complete sets not the individual cards. This confirms that the price I paid for the Kings and Queens of England cards was indeed too high (I still got my money’s worth so I’m not complaining) but more excitingly (and dangerously) opens up world of cards to me that I hadn’t ever considered before.

Am I going off the pre-war deep end? No. But certain sporting figures do hold my interest and of course I’ll get my head turned by them if the price is right.

The card which spurred my interest was the Jesse Owens card from the 1939 Churchman’s Kings of Speed set. Jesse Owens of course is Jesse Owens but the set itself is pretty cool too. It’s a snapshot of all of our speed records at the time—from airplanes to boats to cars to bikes to running to rowing to cycling. Since speed correlates to both our perception of the world and our understanding of human ability it’s really neat to see everything collected together.

This wide-ranging checklist also means that there’s a card of a young Howard Hughes also in this set. It’s great to have an Owens card but it’s also a lot of fun to have a Hughes.

Productionwise there is some interesting stuff going on. The cards look to be simple black and white photos but there’s some extra processing where the backgrounds are screened back a little so as to give the subjects a bit of pop. Also some of the cards, such as the Owens, look to be action photos—semi-advanced stuff for this period in time.

The backs of the set make for good reading with lots of biographical information. I appreciate that Hughes’s card includes his vast inheritance and Hollywood productions. It’s nice to see Birabongse Bhanudej/Prince Bira of Siam have a card which predates his becoming the first Asian driver in Formula One in the 1950s. I wasn’t aware of motor-paced-racing until I read about Léon Vanderstuyft and now that I know I’m just glad he’s wearing a bike helmet. I’m old enough to remember when cyclists didn’t wear helmets (and died in crashes) so seeing a helmet in a photo from the 1930s definitely caught my eye.

Jesse Owens’s back meanwhile is interesting because of how it distinguishes between his amateur racing where he holds numerous world records and his professional career where he races against animals and appears in Hollywood films. I’ve come to side-eye the idea that sports were better when only amateurs could compete but it’s also bizarre for me to see what being a professional athlete used to involve too.

Another set I got was the 1934 Gallaher Champions set. This one has wonderful colorful art in all kinds of action poses. The thin keyline around the players makes everything graphically pop and many of the cards just look fantastic.

The set covers a wide range of sports including dog and horse racing but I got it for the cricket cards—in particular the Jardine and Larwood cards. Those two cards are especially nice but I’m actually more intrigued by Bodyline and the controversy of a technically legal but clearly dangerous tactic that caused the rules to be changed and apparently for many people counts as one of the most important events in the sport.

It’s interesting to me that Jardine’s card refers to “bodyline” while Larwood’s says “fast leg” since this set appears to be celebrating the Ashes victory (there are a number of other cricketers in the checklist).

I also enjoy having a proper Arsenal card which shows off those classic white-sleeved kits on the front and mentions Alex James’s signing bonus on the back. Joyce Cooper meanwhile is one of two women in the checklist and appears to have been England’s best swimmer for her time but suffered some bad luck in the Olympics.

The last set I got was a set of 1958 Kane International Footballers. This set predates the 1958 World Cup* but includes a number of stars from the 1954 World Cup such as Puskás and Fritz Walter. I know Puskás is a Real Madrid legend but I’ve always had a soft spot for him and Hungary and wish the Magical Magyars had won one World Cup to reflect their excellence in the sport and the way they helped drag it into the modern age with some of the first glimmers of Total Football.

*Probably a good thing since I’d expect Pelé and Garrincha cards to command higher prices.

Most of the photos in this set are cropped super tightly. It’s a bit of an odd choice but works pretty well. It also intrigues me that sports cards in England kept the tobacco size format for decades where cards in the US were all kinds of different sizes until 1957 when Topps standardized the form.

The backs of these cards kind of crack me up with their limited bios and emphasis on how the player has done against England. I do enjoy having a second Stanley Matthews card to sort of bookend his career. Paco Gento is another Real Madrid legend who’s won more European Cup championships that anyone else but is also one of Spain’s all-time great players. And Jackie Blanchflower’s card shows that this set also predates the Munich Air Disaster which not only ended his career but nearly killed him.

Now I need to get more pages to file these all away. They’re currently in the British-style 10-pocket pages but I do not have the albums for those nor do I like how they‘re nowhere near as dense as American 20-pocket pages. I’m looking forward to getting them all together where I can appreciate them 20 cards at a time. They deserve to be looked at and read and I’ve been really enjoying getting to know them so far.

Pre-war cards from @prewarcards

One of my favorite Baseball Card Twitter people is Anson Whaley (@prewarcards). He specializes in pre-war* sports cards so his blog and twitter feed contains almost no overlap with mine; aside from my two Zeenuts, I have no pre-war cards. Yet I feel their call sirening away at me. At some level I suspect every collector of baseball cards does. It’s not just an age thing where old cards are always interesting, there’s something to getting in touch with the roots of the hobby which is deeply appealing.

*Generally defined as anything predating US involvement in World War 2.

I think every card collector is an amateur history geek. Cards connect you to over a century of collecting and the evolution of the hobby is something that you just eventually learn about. My sons, who have only just caught the collecting bug, already know about T206 and Honus Wagner. It’s just something that comes up when you get into the hobby.

Anyway, while I’m spending my time as a cheapskate collector who prefers getting cards via trade or for under a quarter on Sportlots, I’m also educating myself on pre-war issues and getting a sense of what kind of things I might one, day consider spending some money on. And I’m also educating myself on how I could do that responsibly as well as learning about what kinds of things to look for to make sure I don’t get fooled by any fakery.*

*Being a cheapskate collector does mean that my unwillingness to spend even medium money on any cards protects me from getting ripped off.

Anson’s website is one of my go-to locations for this kind of information. Plus he’s very friendly and helpful on twitter as well with regard to posting things, answering questions about them, and even discussing the best ways of storing them.

In the beginning of this month he tweeted out some photos of his set of 1928–29 John Player and Sons Footballers. It’s a beautiful set of cards. As a soccer fan there’s something about the early days of the game where everything is recognizable yet so so different. Despite the game having evolved tremendously from those days, the imagery from those decades is immensely powerful. Any team which can trace its history to those years makes damn sure sustain that visual connection to the past.

There’s also something extra special about seeing the early British uniforms since they’re the model that the rest of the world followed.* So in addition to the weight of history there’s a sense of seeing the source of the game in these old cigarette cards.

*Most famously perhaps with the connection Juventus has to Notts County.

I sent a very enthusiastic reply to Anson’s tweet observing how great the cards were and after we had had a conversation about pre-war soccer cards in general and how to find other examples.* No I’m not planning on getting into soccer cards. But you’re damn right I was curious.

*As a Barcelona fan, I was especially curious about whether there were old cards from Spain or Catalunya. Short answer, there most certainly are but they’re often chocolate cards not cigarette cards. 

Anyway during this conversation Anson asked me if I was interested in a few of his duplicates. I guess he could tell that I liked them for what they are and not as any sort of investment. I was very surprised. There’s a wonderful part of Card Twitter where people just offer to send you a plain white envelope with a few cards.* I never respond to people tweeting their cards with the idea that someone will send me things** so I’m always shocked and somewhat embarrassed*** when it happens to me.

*This is what happened with the 1954 Bowman earlier as well.

**There’s a much-less-wonderful portion of Card Twitter which presumes that anything you tweet is something you’re willing to trade or sell.

***I just respond to things which I like since Twitter is most-enjoyable when you respond positively to other people instead of succumbing to the temptation to tear everything down. I’m not in it for freebies—those are just icing on the cake—and I certainly try not to come across as a prize hound.

A couple weeks ago the plain white envelope arrived. And it was beautiful. Colors were bright and crisp. I love the brushy artwork for the backgrounds and the way the ball is always halfway out of the frame. That one of the cards is a Notts County player in that black and white kit is fantastic. Do I know anything about Paddy Mills? Nothing more than what the back of the card and his Wikipedia page tell me. But the story about those shirts and how they had become Juventus’s kit in the beginning of the century is more than enough to make this card interesting to me.

Given how two of the cards feature black and white kits, I’m glad that the Jimmy Oakes comes from a period of Port Vale’s history when they did not wear black and white. As a card this is probably my favorite of the batch since the colors and the pose with the ball coming directly out of the frame are especially striking.

John Priestley’s card is fun too. I love that all three of these feature dynamic poses which capture a certain sense of the movement of soccer’s gameplay which still feels appropriate to the modern game. I’m also enjoying that all three cards feature teams that are now in League Two since the reminder of how a team’s fortunes can change over the decades coupled with the reassurance that the teams are still in existence and playing soccer is everything that’s great about the game.

But Anson did not stop there with those three Players Cigarettes card as he included some duplicate 1938 Churchman’s Cigarettes Association Footballers cards in the envelope as well. These aren’t as graphically exciting as the colorful Players cards but they do feature early action photography. This is pretty cool and the cards are printed at a fine-enough line screen that you can see that the photos are better than newsprint quality.

As a baseball card guy I’m not used to cards featuring players running or jumping. Maybe a follow-through. Maybe. But action photos on cards were pretty rare except when used as background images, special in-action cards, or World Series highlights.

The standout card here is Sir Stanley Matthews, inaugural member of the National Football Hall of Fame and the first active player to be knighted. There’s no obvious reason why should I recognize his name as being important except that he’s just one of those guys who you end up hearing about as you follow the game. Reading about him now when writing this post and it’s clear he was one of the all-time greats of the game who retired right when the modern era really got going.

Harry Goslin is an interesting card which captures certain poignancy in focusing on pre-war cards. In 1943 he was killed in action in Italy so these pre-war issues end up representing what could’ve been had there been no war. Reading the Wikipedia article gives me the impression that many of his Bolton teammates were in the same regiment as him too and while Goslin is the only one to die in the war, it’s kind of a scary thought for me as a fan that you could have your whole team wiped out in one bad battle.

George Mutch meanwhile is notable for 1938 reasons by being the game-winning goal scorer in the first FA Cup to be televised. Yes a bit of obscure trivia. But also a fun factoid to attach to this card.

That’s not all though. That plain white envelope also included a Sanella soccer “card” from the 1932 Sanella Margarine multi-sport set. It’s not exactly a card since it’s printed on thin paper but that doesn’t make it any less cool. As a type geek I appreciate seeing the blackletter fonts since I find the whole Antiqua-Fraktur debate about fonts and national identity to be incredibly fascinating. The idea that I could have printed ephemera from less than a century ago which is printed in my native language yet uses standard letterforms I can’t easily recognize is an amazing thought.

Along with letterform change that occurs in World War 2, this card also has other interesting pre/post war implications. It features Hanne Sobek whose English-language Wikipedia page is a stub but whose German page is fascinating. He ended up in East Germany after the war. In 1950 when the team he was coaching was barred from competing in West Germany, it defected to West Berlin and founded a new club.

Thanks for a wonderful, generous, beautiful mailing!

@mjpmke set me up the bomb

Holy moly. Matt (@mjpmke) sent me a surprise 400-count box of cards. It was packed with team bags and bubble wrap so it ended up being ~200 cards. And good lord they all happened to be great.

Most of the box consisted of about 120 1978 Topps cards. This takes my set progress close to 50% complete. While I’ve still got mostly commons, Matt was kind enough to throw in a decent number of star cards in this batch including the Jack Morris rookie among a handful of Hall of Famers.

I’m fast approaching the point now where I need to consider getting a dedicated set binder and paging everything with empty spots for the missing cards. Looking over my current checklist shows that I don’t yet have a completed page and that I would still have one empty page. When I change both of those statuses is when I’ll dedicate a single binder to this.

Most of the rest of the box consisted of a huge batch of Pacific barajitas. It’s not a ton of cards but these don’t seem to be commonly available as lots. That Spanish-language Pro Set card sent me down a rabbit hole of Spanish-language baseball cards. I grabbed a Topps Zest set last year but most of my attention has been in learning about the 1994–2001 Pacific issues.

I had a handful before this mailday—a few Giants here, a few Stanford guys there. It was nice to have them as samples but they didn’t really provide a sense of the set and brand. The nine 1994s are fun. The ~40 1995s though are wonderful. Where 1993 and 1994 feel very much like baby steps into proper card production, 1995 is a legitimate set which has some interesting photography—I especially like the Ozzie Smith card—and feels like a demonstration of Pacific’s subsequent branding.

The 1996–1999 sets continue that sense with the gaudy graphics and overdone foil stamping. These designs aren’t my cup of tea but there are things about all of them that I like and there’s a certain distinctiveness in the identity that I appreciate.

Matt also included a couple dozen Giants cards. A decent amount of junk wax coupled with a few newer cards. I probably have a few of these but many look completely unfamiliar to me. Of the batch I especially like Duracell oddball and the Matt Williams Pacific. But it’s also fun to have another diecut even though I still don’t understand the point of these. And I like the Will Clark Studio card and the Triple Play with the Turn Back the Clock uniform.

The last card in the box deserves a special mention. The Christie Mathewson mini is here because I forgot to photograph it with the rest of the Giants cards, but the Jorge Campos 1994 World Cup card is one of the few non-baseball cards that really strikes a chord with me. If 1994 marks the point where my baseball fandom took an irreparable hit, it also marks where I jumped seriously into soccer.

Attending the World Cup was just part of it. But between learning much more about the sport via high school soccer and watching all the World Cup games on TV, I came out of the summer of 1994 totally down on baseball and totally up on soccer. Jorge Campos, while not a huge star of the cup, was a clear star for all of us youth soccer players in California. Having a card of his is a fantastic reminder of that summer and my youth playing the game.

This 1994 Upper Deck set is the kind of thing I can see myself grabbing random singles of players I remember fondly from the World Cup—Romario and Hristo (it should be no surprise I ended up a Barcelona fan), Bebeto, Bergkamp, Valderrama—and the rest of my mid-1990s early soccer fandom.

Anyway this whole box was awesome and I need to get my return package of 1978s for Matt’s set chase put together and into the post.

Drifting away

I’ve never been a Luis Suárez hater—I have serious reservations about the way the racial abuse stuff was handled* and the biting stuff, while admittedly abhorrent, is not actually dangerous play. Still, I’ve never liked him despite his obvious greatness as a player. There is too much baggage there where, while I’m not convinced in the severity of everything, I don’t want anything to do with him still.

*Mainly because the way the translations were handled felt both culturally and linguistically simple.

This is distinct from how I enjoy rooting against Ronaldo because he’s a brilliant heel.* If the worst thing Suárez did was the handball against Ghana, I’d still consider him a heel.** But this is something worse where while I think the hatred may be harsh, I can see and understand and even agree with where it’s coming from. I can’t defend him. I also think the people defending him have to cherrypick so much evidence that they appear to be the worst kind of fanboys.

*It’s fun to root against him. It makes the game fun to root against him. At the same time, appreciate him for what he is too. I’m a Barça fan but the constant Messi vs Ronaldo thing is annoying and awful. Appreciate the fact that we’ve got two players playing at—and pushing each other to—levels that no one else has ever reached. 

**I thought that play was brilliant BTW. 

Which is why I’ve been dreading the end of Luis Suárez’s suspension all season. When Barça signed him I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There have been a lot of things the club has done in recent years that I have disagreed with but none of them have affected my feeling for the team itself.

Until now.

Now, one of the chief attacking weapons whose goals and assists I’m supposed to count on and celebrate is a player who I don’t want anything to do with. He’s a player I don’t want to discuss with other fans. He’s a player who I know I’ll get crap about if I wear my Barça jersey.

I drifted away from being a Giants fan during the last half of the 2000s. Mainly because of Barry Bonds and the endless steroids sideshow and how I eventually ended up keeping the team at arms-length because the face of the franchise was something I couldn’t support anymore. Bonds was unlikeable and eventually undefendable and, as such, I found myself paying less and less attention to the individual games and instead just checking in every once in a while to see how things are going. I cared about the team in general. I just didn’t want to know the details.

One week of Suárez in the starting lineup and I’m finding myself taking the first steps to not caring about Barça in exactly the same way. I don’t want to watch the play-by-plays because I find myself hoping he doesn’t do anything good—or if he does, there’s no enjoyment in it. I don’t want to read the write ups because he’s the big story right now. I second-guess wearing my jerseys because I don’t want to talk about him.

This sucks.

I want to be proud when I wear my jersey. I want to take pleasure in being able to watch the games and joy in whoever our goalscorers may be. It’s easy to say that rooting for a team means rooting for laundry. But it’s not true. The people wearing the laundry matter. I’m rooting for both laundry and whoever’s wearing it. If I can’t root for both, I’m stuck not rooting at all.

Not a “true” soccer fan

The World Cup starts this week and as Americans become more and more interested in it, we’re seeing more and more articles castigating how we’re* interested.** Some of the critiques are legit—for example the way we’ve appropriated European nomenclature without recognizing what it means—but a lot of them feel like generic hipster bandwagoning scorn of the “how dare we finally get into soccer” type. Most of these articles are laughable but one of the primary noted “problems” with American fandom really pisses me off.

*By “we,” I mean White America. Most of the articles neglect to see or fail to mention that there are millions of Americans who have been following soccer, and the World Cup, for decades on Univision. And the articles which do notice this often suggest that White America needs to convert these viewers in order to help the “adoption” of the game.

**This is still preferable to the awful, condescending articles which try to explain soccer and soccer players in “American” terms.

Specifically, the idea that liking soccer but not liking MLS makes you a poser fan.

Full disclosure, I’m a eurosnob and proud of it. MLS killed my interest in the league by moving my local team right when I had really gotten into it. While MLS was not good in its first decade, by 2005 it had turned into a decent product. I was watching Earthquakes games and was a bit of a Landon Donovan fan around then. The way he ended up moving to LA and the way the Earthquakes moved to Houston pushed me into the MLS wilderness. The ensuing Beckham debacle where all MLS news became exclusively “Beckham only” sealed the deal.

Soccer and America

This isn’t about me being a soccer hipster who was into soccer before MLS existed. It’s that I’m still of the mindset that soccer in this country shouldn’t be driving people away because they’re interested in the “wrong” way.

Heck, soccer in this country has done a shit job of recruiting people who have been watching fútbol forever into being American soccer fans. That the current US national team has more American-Germans than Mexican-Americans embarrasses me—and I liked Thomas Dooley back in the day. I don’t understand* how we’re unable to scout and recruit Mexican-American players. Still. It’s why I’m so excited by what’s going on in Tijuana and how it shows what soccer, and soccer fandom, can really be in this country.

*Actually, I do. Youth sports, and soccer in particular, has become a rich kids’ game. Which is awful on multiple counts.

Right now though, Tijuana is the exception. Which means that I still don’t think soccer can afford to drive people away. The important thing is to get people interested and hooked on whatever team brought them in. Even if it’s a bandwagon team. One of the glorious things about soccer is that it’s totally okay to support multiple teams. There are so many different leagues and competitions that it’s easy to pick teams who’ll never play each other.

I got sucked into Barça in part because of Romario, Stoichkov, and the 1994 World Cup. It was near impossible to follow international soccer in the US then* but by the time I was able to start following things online, the hook had already been set. I wasn’t a culer 20 years ago. But it started then.

*I remember snippets in the sidebars of the Eurosport catalog. Thankfully I got hooked up to the internet in time for World Cup 1998 qualifying.

I’ve since followed AC Siena* and, before dropping MLS, the Earthquakes. I’ve also followed Rangers, Sunderland, Manchester City, Everton, Fulham, Spurs, Blackburn, and Hanover** at various times but have never settled on an EPL team.*** It’s a hell of a rabbit hole and, while I don’t expect everyone to be like me, soccer kind of sucks you in.

*Whose repeated match0fixing issues are starting to bug me.

**Because Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, and Steve Cherundolo.

***I did though come close to picking Fulham.

Pick a team. Follow a player. Find a new team. Find a new player. Find a new league. Find a new team. Etc. Etc. It doesn’t matter how you start being a fan. There’s no wrong way. And it’s fine to be a newbie. Just, be careful. Soccer excels both at grabbing hearts, and breaking them.

Capità

I wrote a eulogy for Barça two years ago. It’s possibly more appropriate now that the era is finally ending with Carles Puyol announcing the end of his time as a Barça player. While this Barça era’s high point were the teams built around Xavi, it’s an era which has really been dominated by Puyol’s spell as captain.

It’s even more personal for me. My time as a serious Barça fan has coincided with Puyol’s time with the club. I became serious in the late 90s and went through a lot of growing pains and heartbreak in those early years. As a former defender, I’ve naturally been inclined to prefer defenders when it comes to picking favorite players. Puyol quickly became my favorite player with both Spain and Barça in those years just based on how he played on the pitch.

When Puyol became captain in 2004 though, everything fell into place. We finally won La Liga again and went on to win a lot more. I also got to see that there was a lot more to him than how he played on the pitch. There are lots of highlight packages on the webs right now—thundering headers and crunching, yet clean, tackles that I’ve been watching and rewatching. But what I’m really remembering is everything else that Puyol embodies—none of which can be YouTubed. If Xavi is the brains of the team, Puyol is the heart, soul, and engine. And the moral compass.

It’s been an honor to just watch him set the example of everything we, as fans, want our favorite athletes to be. He’s a loyal fan of the club he plays for and cares about the colors more than any other fan could. He’s never rocked the boat regarding salary or anything else. He’s been a consummate professional regarding fair play and respecting opponents. He’s always working his ass off for the team and exhorting everyone else to do the same.

He’s even more impressive off the pitch.

The way he’s gone out of his way to honor teammates, ex-teammates, and coaches—giving the armband to Abidal after the 2011 Champions League Final being the best example here—has been beyond classy. His quiet funding of Miki Roqué’s cancer treatments is even more impressive.

I’ve never been embarrassed by anything he’s done—even his exit is perfect. He’s not hanging on too long. He’s recognized that he can’t maintain the level he needs to maintain for the club. He’s giving the club enough warning and time to really look for a replacement.* He’s even kept the club from having to make any difficult decisions here.

*In some ways, he’s forcing the club’s hand.

It’s not supposed to be like this. Aging player situations are messy and emotional even when handled well.* But Puyol is different. He’s always been different and we’ll never see another player like him.

*It’s even worse when they’re not.

I’m thankful and lucky I picked him as my favorite player over a dozen years ago. I’m going to miss him a lot when he’s gone.