Can you be half a fan?

One of the strangest experiences I ever had as a soccer spectator was at a World Cup qualifying game at RFK Stadium (may the sporting gods rest its soul) between the USA and Guatemala in the fall of 2000. Directly behind me was a man with a flag for each country. Regardless of who was attacking, he cheered them on. When Brian McBride  scored the only goal of the game he went absolutely wild, waving the star-spangled banner and hollering on high.

It was not just a worthy attempt to display assimilation and prove that patriotism can transgress borders, just like people. It was also, in some respects, the perfect sporting experience. The fan had set out that morning to enjoy himself, and to celebrate whatever the outcome. I admired his defiance of the convention that a fan can only care about one team. You could also argue that he stressed the artificial premise of sport. This is not a real battle, it's mere entertainment.

I thought of the fan while debating my youngest daughter on our way into the Eintracht Frankfurt stadium this past weekend, for the team's opening Bundesliga game against Hoffenheim. She can't understand my vehement opposition to the very idea of half-and-half scarves -- those commemorative eyesores split down the middle between two competing teams on any given occasion. I argue in return that she cannot understand my resistance because she's too new to the idea of being a soccer fan. That, "in my day," the vendors would have been chased down the street and far out of town.

What exactly do you have against them? she pressed. She is part of a generation quite rightly not afraid to question her parents' Jurassic assumptions. And as with so many of the questions she's put to me down the years, I had difficulty finding an answer (it was certainly much harder than the question, "Why do you hate Coldplay?"). You know, it just seems wrong, I said. The whole point of going to the game is to support your team. Why would I want a scarf with the name and colors of a team on it with which I have no connection? That I may even profess to hate.

Yes, but if other fans just want a souvenir of a game they went to, what's wrong with that? This question broaches dangerous ground for men of a certain age (over 45) who need to be wary of becoming parodies of an oath-spitting curmudgeon, scorned and imitated by people with fresher thoughts and faces. If we condemn half-and-half scarves outright, we're going to be labeled intolerant. For the simple reason that we are being intolerant. So I answered the question with a question of my own. "Do you want Bratwurst or Rindswurst?"

Reflecting on my rhetorical defeat this morning, I thought of a different, but possibly no less convincing, approach to talking about these fabricated abominations. Let's compare half-and-half scarves to the grown man who turns up for a game, or any occasion at all, wearing his team's full uniform. That is, not just the jersey, but the shorts and the socks too. (There's a name for him in the UK that's not printable in a respectable publication like Soccer America, but google "full kit" and you'll find the correct terminology at Urban Dictionary.) Again, you might ask what's wrong with that, if that's what he wants to do? It's not illegal, and it's certainly not causing any harm.

It's just not done. Look, I hate to sound like someone who's a stickler for social norms, but please believe me, it's far beyond the pale. It's like going to meet the in-laws for the first time wearing a beer box cowboy hat. It's like going for a job interview on Wall Street and saying your biggest inspiration is Eugene V. Debs. It'd be like setting up a stand at the County Fair and challenging passers-by to pay a buck to explain the principles of neural science in 50 words or less. We have the freedom to do any or all of these things, but we generally don't.

"You always say there's too much pointless hate and toxicity among rival fans," ran another one of my daughter's annoyingly logical arguments. "At least the half-and-half scarf is promoting friendship rather than enmity." The U.S.-Guatemalan fan at RFK would probably have agreed. If half-and-half scarves had been around in 2000, he'd have wrapped one around his neck. I still love the memory of that guy and his unchecked determination to cheer for whoever the heck he wanted. And I still do not understand why anyone in the world would ever buy, wear or wave a half-and-half scarf.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

12 comments about "Can you be half a fan?".
  1. Bob Ashpole, August 19, 2019 at 3:03 p.m.

    Has she ever read Fever Pitch (or seen the UK movie)?

    Great article, Ian.

  2. Phil Love, August 19, 2019 at 3:36 p.m.

    Maybe the half / half scarves are better than the people who wear their Barcelona or Man U or Bayern jerseys to games featuring none of those teams.  At least they say, "Yay soccer!" while pertaining to the game at hand.

  3. Ian Plenderleith replied, August 19, 2019 at 5:07 p.m.

    @Phil Love - funnily enough, I saw someone wearing a Liverpool shirt at the Eintracht game and said, "Now that's way worse than wearing a half-and-half scarf." That at least we agreed on. It's like saying, "Your game's not really that important to me because I'm a fan of a much bigger club, but I condescended to come along anyway." 

  4. Kent James replied, August 19, 2019 at 10:24 p.m.

    You guys have a very negative view of human behavior.  While someone wearing a Barca or Man U jersey at a game featuring neither of those teams might be a superior asshat deigning to live among the plebes, he (or she) might also be a casual fan who only owns one soccer jersey, and who says "hey, I'm going to a soccer game, now I get to wear my soccer jersey!"  I may live in a fantasy world, but I think there are more of the latter than the former (though I will admit, that being a "fan" at a sporting event doesn't always inspire the best in human behavior....

  5. uffe gustafsson, August 19, 2019 at 4:39 p.m.

    Never thought about that way.
    to me it’s a memorability that I went to that game and hopefully my team won.
    if we lost I might sell it to a fan of the opposition for half price.LOL

  6. Bill Smith, August 19, 2019 at 4:55 p.m.

    As one of the men over a certain age who was a soccer fan more or less by himself for a decade or two, I was always so happy to meet another fan I couldn't care a bit if they rooted for the other team.  I just wasn't alone for that fleeting moment. 

    There just weren't enough of us to carve the remaining few into smaller bits that "American soccer fans" for my liking.

  7. Kent James, August 19, 2019 at 10:35 p.m.

    Ian, this is a good philosophical issue, but I think there is hope for the future, because you're daughter is right.  Fans who live and die with their teams can be fun to be around (though that becomes less pleasant with a loss), and certainly the atmosphere is usually improved by boistrous fans.  But when fans take it too seriously, it can take a dark turn pretty quickly (violence between opposing fans, racist chants, etc.).  

    I grew up living and dying with ACC basketball in the '70s and '80s; I cheered for Wake Forest (my hometown team) and then Duke (where I went to college for a year), and viscerally hated Carolina.  I transferred away after my freshman year (and my family moved away from North Carolina), so I got out of that atmosphere, and gradually grew to not care about how those schools did, and I have to say, sports are more enjoyable when you don't care quite so much (too much tension generated by an outcome you have no ability to affect; maybe if you cheer for one of the big teams that wins all the time, it's generally a positive experience, and may be an argument for having big clubs that win all the time (more people are happy because their fan base is bigger), but I think being a fan of the game is more mature (and generally better for the world).  Caring who wins does make the game a bit more interesting, but I a world in which games are always entertaining but my team doesn't always win is a better world than one in which the games are boring but my team always wins.  Besides, always winning generates its own kind of boredom (though that version of boredom is preferable to always losing....)

  8. Kent James, August 19, 2019 at 10:50 p.m.

    On a related issue, one thing that has always bothered me about US National team games (though this seems to be more of an issue for the men than the women) against CONCACAF opponents (especially Mexico) is when the visiting team has more fans that we do.  If these fans were truly visiting from their nation (and many of them are), all the power to them.  If they are US citizens (or want to be US citizens), I would hope they would embrace the US national team.  I am a progressive on immigration, so I welcome people from other countries who want to make the US their home to do so, and I think we are better off because of their presence.  But if you want to be a citizen, you should cheer for the US (or if you want to have a dual loyalty, and cheer for both teams, that's fine). But it's rude to cheer for your native country against your adopted country.  I get that people want to be proud of their home country, and it's fine to want them to play well, but I would hope these citizens by choice would at least hope their adopted country would get a tie, if not a win.  Do I ask too much?  (It's also easier to accept the people supporting the weaker nations, but come on, Mexico doesn't need the help!).  

  9. Ric Fonseca replied, August 20, 2019 at 10:01 p.m.

    Senor K. James:  I hear what you're saying and understand all too well.  FYI, I am Mexican born, a Navy-Army veteran, and oh yeah, a naturalized citizen, went to college, etc., been there, seen that and, yada yada.  So when both teams face off, whether at the LA Coliseum, Estadio Azteca or the Rose Bowl or Soldier's field, suffice to say that I hope for a score that was once termed as kissing your sister, a tie.  Still what eve the case, if it is Mexico playing say Argentina, I cheer on the good old "Tricolor" or if it is the US facing England or Germany, I cheer for the red-white and blue.  As for hoping that those Mexican fans cheering at the Rose Bowl for Mexico when facing the US, well pilgrom, 'tis a free country (though I must say that the homophobic taunting has gotten rather boooooring and no matter what the Mex Federation says/foes, where has FIFA been regarding this ???)  So, amigo, let's just say PLAY ON!!! 

  10. Kent James replied, August 21, 2019 at 11:11 a.m.

    Ric, you're doing what I hope other naturalized citizens should do. And I think we should all cheer for CONCACAF teams against teams from other regions.  Just not a fan of being the visiting team on what should be a home game...although it is one reason they play the Gold Cup here, so that's a benefit.    The bottom line is that we need to get more US fans to the games....

  11. R2 Dad, August 19, 2019 at 11:38 p.m.

    Is this what happens to Frankfurt fans after they win a DFB-Pokal final? Feeling your oats, then?
    Seriously, the half-half scarf wearer would probably annoy you less than someone wearing your teams kit that couldn’t name more than 2 players in the side—everything is relative! Your scarf-wearer might irk, but they’re not posing an existential threat. If they were taking the piss AND you were on the verge of relegation, that might be different. Chill and enjoy the best-attended league in the world, which also has reasonable ticket prices!

  12. Ric Fonseca replied, August 22, 2019 at 10:16 p.m.

    TO KENT JAMES:  Well, I can say that "hope springs eternal...." Wishing that other naturalized citizens "should do...(sic)" is just that, wishful thinking as they're doing/saying exactly what they want is a "given right," to speak/cheer their mind, naturalized or not.  PLAY ON AMIGO!!!

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