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The Biggest Difference

I've been a fairly rabid sports fan my entire life, save for a deeply conflicted period of my mid-teens when I struggled with what I perceived as a conflict between my fandom and my identity as an anti-establishment punk-rocker. Those few years were tortuous for me; I spent my days flipping shit at the jocks and decrying mainstream culture in all of its iterations while my nights were largely absorbed by the Seattle Mariners, fantasy football and the latest Associated Press rankings of the top 25 college basketball and football teams. While it seemed earth-shattering at the time, as teenage crises of identity go it seems fairly benign in retrospect.

My obsessions began, as they do with the majority of young men growing up in the southern United States, with American football; my family were regular attendees at Memphis State University football games in the late 1980s (oh the horror!) and my mother lived and breathed San Francisco 49ers football. Friday nights were usually occasion for outings to high school football or beer league softball games and during the summers, when the temperature reached into the 90s and the humidity became stifling beyond belief, we'd nap away the early evening and head to the park at midnight for tennis, basketball or whatever other sporting pursuits caught our fancy on a given day. While the games might have changed, there was always one constant; whether it was Memphis State vying for the impossible upset against the mighty Volunteers of Tennessee or the equally absurd notion of my seven-year-old self besting my father at a game of one-on-one, there was always an understanding that there was a winner and a loser, clearly defined and without question.

In American sports (and, to a great extent and somewhat regrettably, American society in general,) this hold true. As legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant once (is believed to have) said, "A tie is like kissing your sister." We are so obsessed with the idea of crowning a Real and Undisputed Champion that our Congress has become involved in solving this "problem" in our college football system. From Little League Baseball to the Super Bowl, every season must have one champion. Any season that does not end with the hoisting of a trophy on the largest imaginable stage is deemed on some level a failure.

I am, above all else (above even the Villa) a fan of the Seattle Mariners, a Major League Baseball team. The height of my fandom came in 2001, when the Mariners won more regular-season games than any other in the history of the league. They were absolutely the best team I had ever had the pleasure of watching, and arguably the best team in the history of the game. They also lost the American League Championship Series to the New York Yankees, falling short of even the opportunity to play in the World Series. Following that apex has been a long stretch of irrelevance; a few years of middling competitiveness and several definitive years of complete and total incompetence. When I look back on that season, I have almost entirely great memories. Frustration at the result, certainly, but winning the number of games the 2001 Mariners did is a stunning accomplishment, perhaps unparalleled in its improbability in all of American sports history. Most Mariners fans see 2001 as one of the greatest disappointments of their lives as sports fans.

I give this long and rambling back story for this reason; the EPL is very different from most American sports leagues. The Mariners have made tremendous strides over the last two years, completely turning over their roster and going from one of the worst teams in all of baseball to a legitimate World Series contender in just over one season's time. Last season's third place finish (in a division of four teams, it should be said) was a delight for the entire fanbase, but the subtext was clear; we might not be World Series ready just yet, but by God, we will be soon! This is how it is in American sports; I do not mean to say that in such a way that I appear to pass judgment, it is simply a statement of fact. Winning a championship is all that matters, and any positive emotions resulting from a non-championship-winning season are due to the belief that one is just over the horizon.

I get a very different impression from following Villa, the English Premier League and Association Football in general. I do not in any way mean to imply that winning a title, be it finishing atop the table or taking the Champion's League, means any less. I mean instead that fans of soccer clubs seem more realistic in their expectations; I believe that the euphoria felt by Villa fans would be unmeasurable should we win an FA Cup or, dare I say, the Champion's League (which should be apparent by the fact that 1982 is still a great point of pride and rightfully so,) but I also get the impression that most can find a great deal of happiness and accomplishment in finishing fourth in the table or winning the Carling Cup, even if the belief that greater things are not necessarily on the horizon persists.

This is one of many perceived differences between the fandom to which I have become accustomed and the fandom to which I have embraced that I hope to explore here, but as of yet it has been more difficult that others to come to terms with. And while a great deal of my emotional being struggles with it, a not insignificant part of me thinks I might love it.