Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Sportswriter: Why I Am Supporting Barca

Spain's FC Barcelona and England's Manchester United meet this afternoon in Rome to play the UEFA Champions League final, arguably the biggest game for soccer clubs in the world. And though my interest in soccer teams is generally directly related to the distance from my front stoop to the team's location (thus Westbrook High and the New England Revolution attract more of my attention than, say, the Kashima Antlers) I will have a rooting interest in Barca when I belly up to Skybox's bar this afternoon at 2:30p. Why? Well, let me count some of the ways:

1. Barcelona embodies a cosmopolitan provincialism that I find enticing.
In his essay "How Soccer Explains the Discreet Charm of Bourgeois Nationalism,"* Franklin Foer delves into FC Barcelona's pivotal involvement in Catalonia and its burgeoning nationalism, especially during the violent and oppressive days of dictator Francisco Franco. And he uses the Catalans' experiences with Barca as a way to flesh out his strong belief in liberal--or, as he prefers to call it--cosmopolitan nationalism:

[I]n theory, patriotism and cosmopolitanism should
be perfectly compatible. You could love your country--even consider it a
superior group--without desiring to dominate other groups or closing yourself
off to foreign impulses.
Foer goes on to describe Catalans' long and arduous battles to preserve its language and culture and its agitation for independence from Spain. But he's very careful to list the ways in which this active nationalism did not boil over into ethnic warfare or xenophobia, two traits that are unfortunately not uncommon among ultranationalists and some soccer supporters.

As an unapologetic provincialist, I'm always eager to cultivate a greater interest in the histories, cultures, and narratives of Westbrook and Maine. At the same time, though, there is too often an easy temptation to trade in the tired distinction of native and "from away," as watered down as a concept that demarcation may be.

2. It's the jersey, stupid.
After resisting the temptation to join the rest of the soccer planet in sullying the front of its jerseys with commercial advertising for more than a century, Barcelona finally caved in in 2006 with an advertisement...for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) . Oh yeah, and Barca is paying UNICEF a couple million dollars each year to boost the agency's profile and help their HIV-fighting efforts in Africa.

Manchester United, on the other hand, inked a $100 million uniform sponsorship deal in 2006** with AIG. Yes, that AIG.

3. Partisanship just makes watching soccer more enjoyable.
Seems like an obvious statement, but Robert Coover uses Italian fans from the 1982 World Cup to explain why having an emotional stake in a team's outcome just makes spectatorship more appealing***:
Invested with his team or national colors, making
strange aggressive noises with airhorns, whistles, trumpets, drums and
firecrackers, crying out the holy name ("EE-TAHL-YA! EE-TAHL-YA!") or singing
repetitive lithurgical chants, falling out of historical time and geographical
space into a kind of ceremonial trance, timeless and centripetal, he does not
seem a spectator so much as a participant in a sacramental rite...indeed, in his
despair or ecstasy, he often fails to see the game at all, experiencing
it rather at a level that is blind, irrational, profound, innocent.
- John C.L. Morgan

* This essay is part of Foer's book How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unlikely) Theory of Globalization, a great read that touches on soccer's role in everything from genocide in the former Yugoslavia to America's culture wars.

** As a result of AIG's recent financial difficulties, the company announced in January it will not be renewing the pricey uniform sponsorship deal with Manchester United when the current agreement expires in May 2010.

*** Coover's essay is excerpted from the pretentiously-titled The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, a collection of thirty-two essays written either about one of the thirty-two countries that qualified for the 2006 World Cup or written by a citizen of one of those thirty-two countries.

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