In the Spring of 2011 I started a blog on tactical trends, vintage stories and other marvels of soccer and geopolitics. Catch-22 was a website with a simple, immediate purpose, as well as a more ambitious aim: to keep an eye on what’s happening in the game in Europe and globally. The questions in my mind shifted from what actually happened on the pitch to something like this: how do sides set themselves up tactically? How and why do formations evolve? What is the future of emerging countries like the U.S.? In the course of the months, I started writing pieces that were more and more personal, and in some way experimental. Indeed, it became impossible for me to separate sport and travelogue, or technical analysis and literary features. I am happy now to start a new series of my original project, hoping to pave the way for something that, I am afraid, is still for the most part missing from the current media—a fully-fledged cultural review of soccer and other sports.
No matter how big football is—drenched in money and fatally violent, as it also appears from the recent neurological findings discussed by The New Yorker‘s Ben McGrath on January 31, 2011 in his fine piece on the “Concussiongate”—the great American stories about sport belong to baseball. In terms of ethos, baseball is largely independent from how many people watch TV on their sofas, happily consuming Budweiser and buffalo wings. Similarly, soccer culture in the U.S. does not seem to require a strong domestic professional league nor a fully-fledged entertainment industry to penetrate and succeed. Kids follow football, but play soccer; the delight of their mothers in enjoying and supporting an activity that is not very black, it is safe and comes away with cheap equipment has reached such depth that soccer moms are becoming pivotal figures even for presidential elections. Notoriously underachievers and unlikely beneficiary of feminism, Americans mostly see soccer as a soft game, in contrast to its conception as a traditional “man’s game” that permeated Victorian England. Unlike in the N.F.L., where 90 out of 93 million of loyal followers are drafted from within the U.S., the ratings for either the World Cup, the Champions League, or Spanish soccer on any given Sunday usually dwarf the M.L.S.; unlike the insular football, moreover, soccer is not satisfied with giant domestic markets. In 2011 a sporting mogul and producer like Thomas Di Donato has announced the sensational purchase of a team as prestigious and distant as AC Roma. How does one account for the infecting situation in which a team from Salt Lake City calls itself Real from Real Madrid, or a Texan squad cheerfully adopts the label Football Club, as if they were a village in the Alps? Apart from this charming Europhilia, the estimated 43 million Hispanics now living in the U.S. simply outnumber the population of Spain.
My attempt at reconstructing this Atlantic de/formation takes some of its drive from Joseph Heller’s delirious and masterful war-parody, Catch-22, which in turn also symbolizes the logical paradox arising from a situation in which an individual needs something that can only be acquired by not being in that very situation: for example, the M.L.S. arguably needs more high-profile players from overseas to grow, but it can only attract them by growing bigger first. Just recently, the New York Red Bulls set the bar higher by signing somebody of the caliber of Thierry Henry. But take the LA Galaxy instead: David Beckham himself was told that, if he wanted to compete for a spot in England’s roster, he needed to play in continental Europe, which prompted a bizarre, seasonal loan to AC Milan. In an attempt to sedate the team fans, puzzling at the deal, Milan director Adriano Galliani declared that Beckham “is such an old-fashioned player, he even folds his own bag in the locker-room.” So it goes with the global village: you can drive in Limousine and add miles on your frequent flier card, but the traditional wisdom of soccer, so well-embodied by the Mephistophelian Galliani, requires you to act like a regular guy from the neighborhood.