My girlfriend likes to knit. Sometimes when we’re watching a movie, she’ll pull out her giant bag o’ yarn and make a scarf or five, either for herself or for friends. Of course, this only happens when she doesn’t have her hands all over me, but I digress…
A couple of months ago, she asked me if I would like a scarf, too, and I took her up on it. She then asked what color the scarf should be. I told her I wanted one in my alma mater’s colors, the cream and crimson of Indiana University, because I have so few articles of clothing left with those colors. The scarf she made is pictured here, and it served me well for the month or two when it was cold here in North Carolina.
Every time I look at it, though, it doesn’t really remind me of Indiana. It reminds me of a completely different team…
Thankfully, I live in America, where I never run across anyone who would look at this scarf and say, “Ah, you’re a Gooner, eh?” (I once had someone see the scarf around my neck and ask how the quidditch match went. I immediately gave him the finger.) Still, I have to keep reminding myself that this scarf is a symbol of my school, not a symbol of my support for any specific football club — even though scarves clearly have deeper meaning in English football than they do here.
When I first started following the Premier League last season, I chose Reading, because they were getting into the Premier League for the very first time, just like I was, and they seemed like just the sort of plucky underdog worth backing. However, Reading has dropped into the relegation zone this month, and after seeing their dire form lately, I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to have a Premier League club to support next August.
All the while, this red and white scarf seems to be calling out to me. “Come join us, neophyte. Leave your little underdogs behind. Do you really want a life full of relegation battles and Coca-Cola Championship playoffs? Of course, you don’t. Come root for a real winner.”
This is a strange test of faith. Football is a tribal thing, and every tribe has its colors. When those colors overlap, things get weird. I could have asked for a black and gold scarf, but would it have reminded me of my Pittsburgh Steelers, or my alma mater’s archrival, Purdue? I could have asked for royal blue and white, too, since those are Reading’s colors.
Then again, Reading really isn’t my club, is it? Sure, I started following them because I liked their story, but am I really that attached to them? I didn’t exactly grow up with Reading like I grew up with the Steelers, a team I’ve supported for the better part of three decades. I’ve also cheered for the Carolina Panthers ever since they came into existence in 1994, because it’s the closest thing I have to a local NFL team.
Plus, I have a local soccer club now. I go to Carolina Railhawks games and yell my lungs out for them. I can’t really do that for Reading. Madejski Stadium is an ocean away.
Of course, so is Emirates Stadium, and therein lies the problem. Either way, I’d be choosing a club to which I would have no history and no real local ties. This makes it awfully easy for American newbies like me to pick one of the few clubs that actually has an actual chance at winning. After all, if you pick a club that gets relegated and you no longer have a horse in the race, what’s the point of turning on Fox Soccer Channel on Saturday mornings?
The Premier League craves that international audience, but how many fans are they really going to find for clubs outside of the Big Four? Sure, bigger clubs like Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur will find a few new supporters abroad, but Sunderland? Middlesbrough? Wigan? Bolton? How exactly are those clubs appealing to international fans? Who outside of London will care about Fulham if they go down and Clint Dempsey gets sold?
Fandom is a tricky thing. The most disturbing thing my dad ever told me was that if he had to do it all over again, he would have made sure I stayed a UNC basketball fan after we moved to North Carolina in 1982, because it would have saved him a ton of money on tuition — money he spent sending me to Indiana.
Fandom gets even trickier, though, when the teams you support are merely flickers on your TV screens, or ghosts on the holographic pitches of futures that never arrive. Premier League boss Richard Scudamore might continue to pimp the idea of overseas matches — we all have our windmills to tilt — but perhaps someone should remind him that the worldwide demand isn’t for the whole league. It’s for that handful of rich clubs that have a real shot at winning something, because fans love winners. We’ve no real loyalty to these tribes. We’re just riding the bandwagon until a better one comes along.
I still want to see Reading climb out of the drop zone, of course, but I feel like I have to prepare for the possibility that I won’t have a club to support in the Premier League next season. Perhaps that’s why that scarf is sending such mixed signals. I might not be getting those signals if the club I chose wasn’t in danger of being relegated. We never have to worry about such things in American sports.