By Paul Gardner
I have received a breathless announcement from MLS informing me that Manchester United will be coming to the USA this summer. A press release, of course, but one is entitled to wonder which section of the press it is intended for. It also seems likely that much of the wording is designed to impress sponsors and marketing people.
The first four paragraphs (and, to let you in on a trade secret, press releases had better make their point, forcefully, a lot quicker than the fourth paragraph) include the term “blockbuster,” talk of a tour that takes in “four markets,” identifies Creative Artists Agency as a presenter of the tour, quote Forbes magazine, and refer to Manchester United as “the world’s most valuable football brand.”
That last phrase is particularly irritating. And I would have thought that it would be exactly that to the marketing mob who continually like to remind us how the sport is so richly connected to “the people” and of the “passion” that it generates. That sort of background does not connect easily to an activity that is labeled as though it were merely a commercial brand.
No soccer fan, ever, anywhere, talks of his sport or his team as a brand. Any more than any soccer fan ever refers to his club or his city as a market.
Quite aside from this matter of blatantly commercializing a sporting activity, there is another point in that “world’s most valuable football brand” phrase that rankles. Football? What is it about Americans involved in soccer that they find it difficult to use the word soccer -- which is the correct word in this country?
Why do they find it necessary to bow down, to kow-tow, grovel even, to British usage? The New York Red Bulls recently announced a four-team tournament, which they have named the New York Football Challenge. Why? Who knows -- but I can guarantee that the basis of their thinking is the inverted snobbery of not wanting to upset the Brits.
Talking of snobbery. The June issue of Vanity Fair, a rather unpleasant magazine that lives by snobbery and elitism, features the World Cup on its cover. (Sort of -- it’s really more beef cake, with Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo wearing only briefs). The story inside is by A.A.Gill, a snotty Scot who makes a living by insulting not just people, but whole ethnic groups. You want soccer snobbery? Just listen to how A.A.Gill starts his story:
“Look, can we get this straight, right from the get-go, from the first whistle? It’s football, OK? Football. Not soccer. It’s never been soccer. Nobody but midwestern cougars calls it soccer.” So much for midwestern cougars, who -- or whatever they may be. And so on. He sprinkles in a “nil-nil,” and he uses the word “pitch.” We are granted one dispensation -- “You may, if you really insist, call it “footie.”
Gee, thanks, A.A. And thanks for a couple of pages of well-worn anecdotes and dumb cliches about the history of the sport. He also manages to call the Italians and the Argentines cheats while he’s on the subject. He has nothing derogatory to say about the English, which is strange, as he is on record as describing the English as a “lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd”.
A.A.Gill is better known for his acerbic restaurant reviews, which I imagine are a lot of fun to read. But his soccer knowledge is unimpressive -- it reads like a researcher’s notes. So what -- he’s a Vanity Fair writer, he has a Brit accent -- so he must know about soccer, right? And whoosh! -- he’s Vanity Fair’s soccer expert.
Actually, this sort of thing happens regularly, every four years, as know-nothing sociologists and university professors and cultural critics suddenly pop up as instant experts with invariably laughable accounts of the sport and its place in society.
That is all decidedly regrettable, but nothing more. All those superior intellects disappear as quickly as they arrived, at least for another four years. Much more damaging is the corrosive influence of the Americans themselves, the insiders, the soccer people who are influenced by all that snobbery, and feel ashamed of their American approach, who feel that they must adopt as many Britishisms as they can lay hold of, even to the extent of distorting their own language.
There was a time, in the history of American literature, when an American writer felt that, to be taken seriously, he (they were all “he” in those days) had to write like a Brit. Washington Irving, hailed as The First American Man of Letters, was accused of pandering to British sensibilities and of writing "of and for England, rather than his own country."
That is nicely put. Not until that sycophancy to the Brit way was thrust aside could the true American spirit -- indeed, the true American language, develop. Think Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway.
In soccer terms, we’re at the same stage of development. The sport in this country now has more than enough going for it to develop its own “writers” -- to banish pro-Brit snobbery, and develop a true American terminology for the sport, as the true American player develops on the field.
That a threat to basic, sturdy American usage should come from the marketing mob should surprise no one, as the essence of marketing is deception, not clarity. But that American soccer people feel it necessary to use English terminology -- when there are perfectly good, and less ambiguous, American words available -- can only indicate that they are intimidated by the soccer Brits. I’m not even sure that any blame attaches to the Brits here -- this looks like an almost colonial subservience.