I have a confession to make: when it comes to football, I am not a monogamist. I am married to Barcelona, and don’t have any the same kind of emotional connection with any other team. I cry when they win major championships, and I feel sick when they lose. I have watched countless YouTube videos, and read about long-since retired players just because they played in a Blaugrana jersey. I can sing the Cant del Barça from memory, even though I speak not a word of Catalan. The only place in the world I want to travel to is Barcelona, only because I want to go to the Camp Nou.
But . . . I have a wandering eye, and have been tempted by the allures of other teams. None of my other teams are Spanish or will ever face Barcelona in competition. Nevertheless, I feel like I am sneaking around, and in the back of my mind, I fear that someone will catch me cheering for another team on television, or holding a different colored scarf. It’s the fear that a blue-and-red-clad representation of the club (possibly looking like Xavi) will stand in front of me with tears in his eyes and ask, “Am I not enough for you? Don’t you love me anymore?”
Granted, even the most devoted football fans passionately follow their national team. But national teams are different from club sides. National teams play far less often and in different kinds of competition. Plus, it’s your country, so there is a different kind of honor at stake. Loving you national team is like loving one’s parent, but that is not the same kind of intimacy that one has with a club or a romantic partner. (Disclaimer: this is all metaphor. Please don’t think I advocate forsaking real human love for a football team; there is no comparison.)
Coming from a country where football is not a major sport, and where no major football league existed throughout my young life, I never developed an early devotion to a specific club. It was not until well after I had my first kiss, had my first sexual experiences, had my heart broken, and learned the difference between relationships and flings, that I started looking for clubs. My experiences were further colored by yeas of watching tennis, where one supports ephemeral players rather than the constancy of clubs. Attachments in tennis come and go, only to be replaced by new ones. From all these experiences I learned that absolute fidelity is overrated.
You never find your club; the club finds you. When I first started to teach myself about football, way back in 2002 or so, the first team that attracted me was Manchester United. While I have never completely lost fondness for them, it was merely a first crush, a way to rid myself of football virginity. My fling with United did leave me with one lasting scar, I have never been comfortable with Arsenal even though they play a similar (if inferior) style to Barcelona. I did try, but I could never get up the energy to root for them.
After United I looked at those sides that dazzled with titles, such as Real Madrid and Liverpool (Italy always turned me off), but it felt wrong. From afar they are glamorous, up close they are frigid. Did you ever have a date where you had nothing in common with the other person and even the physical attraction was a dud? That was Madrid and Liverpool.
I found Barcelona in 2006 through Ronaldinho and the build-up to the World Cup. I was mesmerized. He left, but I stayed because Barcelona was the perfect fit. Barcelona the city (a gay-friendly, liberal hotspot dripping with culture and history), and the ethos of the club (left-leaning, socially conscious, anti-central authority, center of Catalan identity, “more than a club”) fit in nicely with my own values. Although those carefully cultivated imagine–both mine and the club’s–are not 100% accurate, the damage was done, and I had my true team.
It’s not like any of my other clubs are in La Liga, mind you. That is outright polygamy, and that is illegal (unless you are in Spain and then you are almost obligated to support your team and either Real or Barça. Me however, I’m not from Barcelona.)
Now you may be scratching your head and saying to yourself, “2002? MLS was already around by then.” That is true, but back then Philadelphia did not have a team. I was born in Philadelphia. I lived around Philadelphia most of my life. The overwhelming majority of my family immigrated to Philadelphia three or four generations ago and stayed there. I root for Philadelphia teams, even when I don’t care for the sport. It is home, and I sure as hell was not going to root for another US city’s club. Now Philadelphia has a club, and the Union is indeed one of my other teams.
This past season, I found another team in another league, and there is definitely some heavy-duty flirting. This team is not any threat to Barcelona–in fact, it not even be in its nation’s top league–but it makes me smile and my heart beat a little bit faster.
This club is Germany’s St. Pauli (of Hamburg), which was relegated out of the Bundesliga. They started well, they played well, and then fell apart. That is not why I have fallen for St. Pauli though. No, St. Pauli, like Barcelona, has a very strong identity, and it is a very socially conscious one. The club has a devil-may-care, punk rock, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, be kind to others, atmosphere, which is why St. Pauli also has fans all over Germany. (Once again, the truth is more complicated, but the identity is pervasive.) How can one help but fall for a club whose logo is a skull and crossbones? Or whose former president is an openly gay man? Or that one cannot mention St. Pauli without mentioning the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s red light district. And so St. Pauli too has reached me, and I found another club that I wanted to support. That St. Pauli is the composite of Barcelona–a club where failure is not only tolerated, it is somewhat expected–only endears the club to me further.
It’s not really cheating is it? Barcelona will never know about the other teams. And besides, it’s not like Barcelona has me as its only fan.