Stranger in a Strange Land

Originally posted at isportstimes.com on August 16, 2013

I’ve had a very eventful 21 years as a sports fan. My first sports memories are this and this. I had the privilege of watching LeBron James seemingly shrink the court with his patented one-man fast breaks as well as the privilege of watching Brady Quinn check down again and again on third and long.

So they may not all be great memories, but I certainly have a lot of them. But even as football, basketball, and baseball have demanded an unhealthy portion of my time, I can’t help but feel like I haven’t quite experienced sports fandom to the fullest.

No, my one regret about my sports fandom is not following soccer before my introduction to the game during the 2010 World Cup and through the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa video game.

See, I used to be one of those people that always ragged on soccer; saying it was a game for those not tough enough to cut it in a “real” sport or claiming that there was no way a game that can end in a scoreless draw could possibly be exciting. Then the 2010 World Cup happened, and as I found myself enthralled by the action, I would rationalize my enjoyment. Sure, I’m enjoying these games, but only because I’m rooting for the US, and even when they got knocked out the games were still intriguing because it’s the World Cup. I was enjoying it for the same reason I enjoy the Olympics every four years, not because I was a huge fan of the 200m Medley, but because of domestic pride and the spectacle surrounding the event.

My soccer interest held steady at that point until another video game came about, FIFA 12. Now this was my first real experience with the club teams across Europe, and again my mind kept wandering to soccer, although this time was a little different. Rather than thinking about soccer under the guise of the World Cup, I found myself wanting to dive head first into European club soccer.

So now the big conundrum: how do I pick a club to support. This was a first for me. As a Cleveland native, there was never any doubt in which teams I would root for. I am bound to root for the Cleveland teams and all the terribleness that comes with them. But now I was faced with a choice. I could now choose amongst dozens of teams across the soccer landscape.

I ended up choosing Chelsea, and the reasons were pretty simple. They were my team of choice in FIFA 12, so it only made sense to follow them in the real world. I also fell in love with Didier Drogba, both virtual and real-life Drogba. If you’ve ever watched him play, it’s easy to see why. He is the perfect amalgamation of power, skill, and grace, a goal scoring force. He was the best I had ever seen play the game, which isn’t saying much since I had just started watching a few weeks prior, but you get the point (more on Drogba in a minute).

So I had my team picked out…or had I? While my choice of Chelsea had felt like a good one, I was still very much conflicted. The 2011-12 campaign when I had started following them was generally a down year for Chelsea. They had fired their newly hired 15 million Euro manger and their British record 50 million pound striker had turned into a pumpkin. Chelsea finished sixth in the domestic campaign, their worst finish since Russian Oligarch Roman Abromovich (his full name) bought the club.

So I said it was a down year for Chelsea, but that’s only true to a point. After firing Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea made an at-the-time inconceivable run in the Champions League, culminating in an unfathomable victory over two legs to Barcelona that saw Chelsea register a mere 28% possession across the two games and play with ten men most of the second game. At that point, it was no surprise that Chelsea marched into the Allianz Arena and beat Bayern Munich on their home pitch to take home the title, a game that was just as wild as the preceding Barcelona games.

Now this improbable run is happening in my first year following the team, and I enjoyed every second of it. It completely validated why soccer is worth following in the first place. And yet…

…something didn’t feel right, and to this day it still doesn’t feel quite right. How could I truly appreciate a team reaching the pinnacle of club soccer when I just started rooting for them? It conflicted with everything I had experienced with my Cleveland fandom. Everything in my sports upbringing had taught me that you have to pay your dues as a fan. You have to experience all the misery to truly appreciate the successes. This felt like cheating. I pick a team to follow, and they go on to win the most important tournament in the craziest way possible.

People sometimes bring up the idea that people born after 1964 are wondering if a Cleveland team will ever win a championship in their lifetime. You can plug in a lot of different teams and figures for that. Hell, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 105 years. I’m 21 years old, and I generally expect that a Cleveland team will win a title at some point in my lifetime, provided I live for a decently long time, which is far from a given. I never really give credence to those that say such things.

But at the same time, there’s no way to know for sure. I’m sure in 1968 many Cubs fans were certain that they would see a title in their lifetime. But here we are 105 years later, still waiting. Sports never seem to follow the script.

So there I am, sitting in front of my 23 inch Zenith television, having just watched the culmination of one of the greatest championship runs in soccer history, and I have no idea what to think or feel. It was then that I realized I had no context with which to understand what I just watched. They say sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for rain, and here I am with an impossibly long string of sunny days without having seen one drop of rain.

During that year, Didier Drogba became my favorite player to watch. But just because he was my favorite player to watch did not mean he was the best player in the league. He turned 34 that season. The team had just signed Fernando Torres to replace him. This was a player trying to make good on his last chance before saying goodbye. While it was fun to watch, it was disheartening to know that I had missed out on watching one of the greatest ever at the height of his prowess. And it’s only more disheartening to know that I could have been there for it had it not been for my blissful ignorance.

The same goes for Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole, and the rest of the Chelsea “old guard”. I had reaped the benefits at the end, but I had missed the journey. Without the journey, the end result can’t help but ring hollow. Yes my team had won the title, but, you know, sunny days and rain and all that. If the Browns win a title this type of stuff wouldn’t be an issue. I have grown with the Browns. I’ve been there for all the ups and downs, well just downs in the Browns case. They are MY TEAM.

I can’t say that about Chelsea. They’re an adopted team. Picked by me because I like using them in a video game. It wouldn’t be fair to make an analogy to an adopted child, because you establish an emotional connection with an adopted child. They become your flesh and blood and it becomes irrelevant that they were adopted. No, this was more like adopting one of the Step Brothers and watching him go on to absolutely nail the Catalina Wine Mixer. The Chelsea I watched was fully grown up. They had experienced their trials and tribulations without me. They may be my adopted team, but we still feel like strangers.

So here I am a little over a year later. Chelsea finished up a somewhat underwhelming campaign that saw another coach fired and another Champions League birth, and they now prepare to embark on a new season under the watchful eye of new/old manager Jose Mourinho. I am also preparing to begin a new year of waking up very hung over on Saturdays and Sundays to watch Chelsea play, streaming the games at nine in the morning if need be. If there’s one thing my record of unemployment says, it’s that I truly do have a passion for soccer, as it’s one of the select few things that will get my ass up at 9am.

While my passion for soccer is strong the question still remains: How do I build a rapport with a game and a team? How do I come to feel emotionally about soccer and Chelsea the same way I do for my Cleveland teams? Time may be the answer, but time won’t change the fact that my soccer fandom has been spoiled at the core. Maybe I need to pick a different team, perhaps a team not on the same elevated financial playing field as Chelsea, a team that I can get the chance to struggle with.

But for now I’m a soccer nomad, searching for my footy soul mate. In the meantime, wanna play some FIFA?

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About PapaBearJere

Jeremy Klein is an unabashed Cleveland Sports fan who only wants to see a Cleveland team win a title. You can follow him on twitter @PapaBearJere or email him at thenarrativeblog@gmail.com.

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