For those of us growing up at the tail end of the twentieth century in the United States, football was something performed by Joe Montana, Bruce Smith, John Elway and Walter Payton. Soccer was something else: a game played by American children in suburban parks on Saturdays, and by Latin American, European and African immigrant adults in urban parks on Sundays. The soccer played by me and millions of colorfully adorned kids around the country was rapidly growing in popularity. But there was always a sense that there was something fundamentally un-American about it—that soccer would need some kind of foreign shock treatment to begin to thrive here.
For most of my life, I and my fellow soccer sojourners have been under the spell of a massive (though in some ways understandably justified) inferiority complex, relative to our European and South American and African counterparts. For those of us who were introduced to their histories, styles, cultures, leagues, stadiums and clubs, our imaginations were cast in the direction of what we didn’t have and probably could never attain. It was as if “global football,” in all its complexities and vicissitudes, became a sentimental ideal we were bound to pursue to the ends of, well, the globe. But—at least on the men’s side—we always sorta knew we would fail; the globe was too big, the clubs too powerful, the stadiums too romantic, the leagues too impenetrable, the cultures too rich and the histories too rooted. The more we learned about foreign leagues and federations the more we were convinced that there had to be something wrong with us. Our minds were compromised by SportsCenter; our bodies too practiced in the habits of basketball, baseball and tackle football; our souls too attuned to the rhythms of commercially franchised athletic organizations. Contrary to almost every national instinct and expression since the end of World War II, it became a commonplace to promote the idea that America’s only path to international achievement was to conform to whatever was being done somewhere else in the world.
Slowly, things changed. In 1994, the United States hosted (still) the most attended World Cup in the tournament’s history. Shortly after that Major League Soccer was launched, and then sustained itself for the next two decades by gaining investment from young entrepreneurs who were buying in on the ground floor. In the early years, MLS teams were ridiculed for playing in front of small crowds in enormous stadiums. But smaller, and in some cases architecturally stunning, soccer-specific stadiums popped up all over the country. Added to all this, the women’s national team continued winning World Cups and Olympic Medals. Our men were not as successful, but they did qualify for the last seven World Cups, reaching the knockout stages in four of them.
Whether we noticed it or not, this was a record that most soccer federations would envy. Which is to say nothing of the fact that some of the game’s iconic vanguards—the Netherlands, England, Colombia and France—couldn’t boast of the same. Whether we admitted it or not, the insecurities were at least beginning to wane. Still, there was always the feeling of being the clumsy tourists or recent immigrants. No matter how well we memorized the maps or how fast we picked up the language, we still couldn’t move or speak with a sense of freedom.
“I have been interested in football for as long as I can remember,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game, a mostly unnoticed book I accidentally discovered last summer. The volume collected a four-hundred page email exchange between Knausgaard, a (noted) parent of four and now international literary icon, and his friend Fredrick Ekelund, a novelist and playwright. The occasion for their correspondence was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Ekelund traveled to experience the event in person; Knausgaard (usually while minding the children) watched from home. Their respective locations run parallel to the memories they share in their opening letters: Ekelund of his time as a graduate student in Paris, and the unlikely encounter that led to his learning Spanish and Portuguese; Knausgaard of his culturally Protestant sensibilities that mostly compel him to never leave (or even think outside of) Scandinavia. Except, that is, through the lens of football, which he says “creates contact” around the globe: “We can talk about it with anyone. Neighbors and fellow airline passengers as well. It is something we have in common, a frame of reference.” Every four years, “what you get from a World Cup is joy, excitement, fascination, togetherness. And that is not bad.”
Apart from the excitement of a quadrennial spectacle, Knausgaard looks back on football as “one of the [few] activities we did which filled us with joy: a ball, a pitch and two jackets as a goal. Oh, the shouts that rang out through the evening air, the ball, heavy and slippery or dry and light with the bladder showing between the leather laces. … Autumn in the rain, winter in the snow, spring in the mud, summer in the heat: football, football, football.” For Ekelund—romantic and world traveler—surviving cancer inspired a renewed appreciation for first-hand experience. Not only did he travel to Brazil to live with the World Cup spectacle, he brought his gear too, and managed to make his way into pick-up games along the Copacabana. At sixty he was (by his own estimation) not out of place, escaping defenders and netting the occasional screamer. “The magic of feeling the ball at your feet,” he writes, “has always been greater than the experience of the spectator, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been deeply passionate when occupying the role of a fan as well.”
Most of us are destined for the same role, despite our youthful ambitions of collecting a sizeable paycheck to kick a ball. But unfulfilled dreams can’t erase the memories Knausgaard relays of carefree childhood joy—the feeling of “being somewhere else apart from yourself inside yourself.” “Playing football” for Knausgaard, was always “like being somewhere, it was like your own world inside a world, with its own rules, where I was happy”; an out-of-body experience you have with your own flesh and blood. Until, as Knausgaard discovered in his adolescent years, “not being good at football suddenly [gets] in the way.” And with that, punk rock, cigarettes, alcohol and women replaced the desire he once had for time on the field. What was left in this new phase of athletic disembodiment was the life of a fan.