It seems so many of us share a similar reaction to the World Cup: just when it feels normal, it disappears. When it ended, I wanted more soccer and, magically, I discovered the Fox Soccer Channel in my cable guide. By now, many Americans 40 and under have probably played soccer as kids. But the play on FSC, which heavily follows English "club" soccer, is so elegant, the rivalries so confusing, the league ranking rules so unique that the play seems utterly, well, foreign.
Because I wanted to keep watching soccer, I needed guidance, and a friend recommended Bloody Confused: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer. But rather than a strict how-to of watching English soccer, breaking down rivalries and elements of the game, the book makes a case for simply falling in love with it. The details are unimportant; the whole of the game is just too fun. So is the book.
In Bloody Confused, Chuck Culpepper is fed up. He begins the book with a litany of repellent developments in American sports and how they have gradually eroded the remaining vestiges of goodwill he bears for them. After 15 years of crisscrossing the country to cover these phenomena one thing is clear: sports, the games he loved so much that he wanted to follow them professionally for the rest of his life, aren't fun anymore.
By chance, he has fallen in love with English Premiership soccer, the league of 20 clubs that vie each year for the FA Cup. Scoring a chance to work as a sportswriter in England, he relocates and commits himself to becoming an authentic "football" fan.
Much of the first half of the book provides a comedy of errors. Chuck can't figure out which club is "home" or "away," doesn't know what relegation is, and he can't get into stadiums because he doesn't have a ticket-buying history with them. Although this last is a means of reducing hooliganism, by preventing strangers from showing up one day at an "away" stadium, what flabbergasts him is finding a sports club—an economic engine—literally turning money away to preserve a fun experience for regular fans. It's the antithesis of the American sporting experience. These antitheses inform a lot of his commentary. He visits the clubhouse of Manchester United (arguably the best Premiership club of the last decade and change). Despite the club's being worth a billion dollars, its digs are less sumptuous than Florida State University's.
The most surprising antithesis comes out of what should be sports fan's despair. Chuck explains and charts a process called "relegation," virtually unknown in the United States. Under relegation, at the end of every season the three worst clubs in the Premiership, the top league, drop down to the Football League Championship (which is, admittedly, confusingly named), while the Championship's top three clubs are "promoted" to the Premiership. (This is repeated in the two other soccer leagues, ranked below the Championship.)
In American football, we have the Super Bowl Champions, and that's pretty much it. Some people care about Conference Champions and Division Champions, but to a lot of die hards, there are the winners and then 31 different grades of loser. But English soccer fans have four different leagues to root for. Amongst those leagues, every year, are 18 slots of either promotion or relegation, over which untold clubs must fight or scramble to avoid. This doesn't even factor in the number of clubs that can vie for titles.
There is a richness, then, to English soccer that is uncommon to American audiences. Going off of points to determine titles, instead of single-game elimination playoffs, keeps many more clubs in the title hunt in the last week of a season. Avoiding relegation offers lower-rung clubs something to fight for. In American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, a team in the cellar has nothing for fans to take pleasure in. But even fans of the lowliest club can bellow and fret over trying to "stay up" in the league.
This is where the absence of despair is most striking and where Chuck's book is the most fun. He spends early chapters trying to figure out which will be "his" club. He doesn't want to be a front-runner, and he doesn't want to blindly follow friends' advice, so he keeps trying out various clubs and stadiums. What finally draws him in as a dedicated fan is Portsmouth and its fanbase. There is nothing in America to compare with English soccer fans' ability to improvise and adapt songs and sing them constantly for 90 minutes. But something about Portsmouth's fans in particular connects with him. Somehow, this all makes even more sense when he starts hanging out with a man who attends games dressed as a huge blue bear. No, really.
What strikes Chuck most is the joy that fans bring to the game. Sure, there's long-suffering angst and anxiety; there's frustration and outrage. But at the ends of seasons, people still sing songs, walk out with the whole family and even look on the bright side of seeing new stadiums if their club is relegated. There's a reason why Eric Idle's insanely optimistic "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," from Monty Python's Life of Brian, became a hugely popular anthem for soccer fans in England. There's a cultural alchemy at work here that manages to wrest communal pleasure even from disappointment.
The book is fun for even the hopelessly confused. Chuck breaks down the pub, train, bus, and stadium cultures of English soccer. He looks at English journalism, as well as player access and personalities. It might not be an explicit step-by-step instruction, but the big picture comes through clearly via fun anecdotes and honest mistakes.
These last make his facts happily digestible. Chuck's book is both fun and funny. Any random sampling of pages stands a good chance of having a genuine laugh line on it. Moreover, the wryness and the goofy errors help to make more arch insights (he's really fed up with American sports) go down, while anchoring weird details in the brain.
His focus may not be as universal as some readers would prefer—Portsmouth fandom consumes him—but it's intensely personal. This approach fits nicely with his book's unstated moral. Forget about being confused; just jump in, let yourself have fun, and eventually the pleasures of English soccer can't help but find a way to reach you.
The only remaining question is, "Which club do you choose?"
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