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If you read nothing else today you must read this

Post  cyprussyd on Sat Aug 19, 2017 12:21 pm

'I know their vital stats, their romantic histories': how Sunderland AFC saved me

For this Chinese Jewish Texan, England was a difficult place to feel at home. But all that changed when she discovered football



[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.] ‘I love an underdog’: Jessica Pan in the famous red and white stripes. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Guardian



Jessica Pan
Saturday 19 August 2017 10.00 BST
‘That’s shite, man!” the man behind screams. The discontent in the crowd is reaching a critical mass. “Useless twats,” snarls a father below, opening a packet of crisps for his nine-year-old son.
I stand frozen, wrapped up in a scarf and down jacket. Who are we yelling at? Why are we so angry?
It’s Boxing Day 2012 and I’m at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland for my first ever football match. It’s freezing cold; it begins to rain. And then it happens. A [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.] player fires a shot that creeps past the Manchester City goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the net. The stadium thunders as a sea of 46,000 bodies fall over each other, total strangers hugging their neighbours, while simultaneously jumping up and down. The man next to me screams so loudly in my ear that I’m momentarily deaf. Then he turns me towards him, grabs my shoulders, locks eyes with me and shakes my body. “Ahhhhhhhhhh!” he screams, in happiness and disbelief.
“Ahhhhhhh!” I scream back, in fear.
***
When I moved to London, I got a job as a junior editor on a luxury lifestyle website. The site was run by a flamboyant man from Croydon named Carlos, with coiffed salt and pepper hair. Never one to pass up an opportunity to show off, Carlos liked to introduce me to visiting VIPs as “our New Yorker who speaks fluent Mandarin and went to Harvard”.



None of these things was true. I grew up in a small town in Texas: Amarillo. For some reason, Carlos didn’t think this as impressive as being from New York (despite Amarillo being the helium capital of the world and the home of Tony Christie’s sweet Marie). As for “fluent in Mandarin”, my dad is Chinese, but I speak only broken Mandarin after living and working in Beijing for a few years. I didn’t go to Harvard – I was rejected – but I did go to a university an hour away. None of these things made sense to Carlos, so he went with his own version.
My exchanges with Carlos were stilted. Our interactions ended in awkward silences. He was twice my age and we had nothing in common. But he was well known in London media circles and I was desperate to get him on side.
After Beijing, I assumed it would be a breeze to assimilate in a country where I no longer faced a language barrier. In China, I had spent a good amount of time miming my interactions. I also had to get used to Beijing locals asking me how much money I made, or telling me I was looking fatter than usual. But it was a bluntness I came to embrace: at least I knew where I stood.



Not so in London. The city was so rife with passive aggression that I didn’t know when people were being rude or kind. A woman thanked me on the train for moving my bag and I was almost certain what she was really saying was “too f*cking right”. A man squeezed by me on the escalator and the pitch of his seemingly polite “May I…?” was so snide, it nearly brought me to tears. Carlos asked me if I want to do something for him at work and I wasn’t sure if it was an order, a helpful suggestion or sarcasm. The words themselves were unfailingly polite, but it was all in the tone. Other Americans I knew suffered the same way. “I genuinely don’t know if my colleagues are making fun of me or being nice,” a friend from Chicago confessed one night over drinks.
London can be a tough city for newcomers to crack. Compared with the US, people prefer to keep to themselves, especially in public. I’m shy, so this was wonderful at first. No one approaches you to chat. I once fell in a crowded street in broad daylight and began the, “I’m fine, I’m fine, honestly” protest. But no one had stopped. I lay on the ground, impressed with people’s dedication to not getting involved with strangers. I began to think that I might never find a way to break through the famous British reserve. Would I ever find common ground with Carlos? If only there was some magic key.


My husband, Ian, talked about his team’s players as if they were his family. That made them my family, too


And then one day, I witnessed a man bite another man on live TV. This happened during a football match that was on in a pub I happened to be in. I was immediately intrigued: by the biting, the drama, the getting caught, the primal emotion of the incident. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was it: my “in”.



On a bus, I sat with a couple of friends who were discussing live scores; soon, the entire upper deck had joined the conversation. It was like a portal to another dimension in which everyone was chatty, friendly and open on public transport.
Football was everywhere, it turned out. Once I noticed this, I began to absorb football facts, though only certain things stuck. I loved it when footballers cried. Maybe it was the persistent myth of the stiff upper lip but seeing a player moved to tears, to me, showed he cared more than anyone else. It wasn’t like watching an actor pretend to tear up. This shit was real.
I loved any sort of drama on and off the pitch. Family tensions, love problems, scandals, shoving matches; before long, I became a reliable source of useless, soap opera-esque information about players.
I also became a fervent Sunderland supporter. Why would a Chinese girl from Texas living in Highbury, north London, become a Sunderland supporter? Because I had married one. Ian, born and bred in Sunderland, talked about his team’s players as if they were his family. That made them my family, too. I knew their names, their shirt numbers, their vital stats, their romantic histories. I was also a natural fit for Sunderland because I love an underdog – and by God, I had chosen the underdog of underdogs. The big clubs, with their expensive superstars, were boring to me. Our wins were rare, but they were so much sweeter for it.



I watched televised matches, sometimes without Ian if he was busy or out of town, something that had my friends and family baffled. During visits home to Texas, Ian and I zealously woke early to catch the Sunderland game. My father would observe me, puzzled. My mother, who is Jewish, was also bewildered but said, “Well, you were the most athletic of our family of klutzes.” It was my childhood best friend Jori who called me out. We were in a Waffle House diner surrounded by grassy plains. I asked Ian if he knew how Sunderland’s relegation rivals had fared in their six-pointer, when she interrupted me. “Are you talking about… British soccer? Who are you?” I told her the truth: I’m just a girl, standing in front of the TV, hoping a footballer scores a winning goal in the last minute of a high-stakes match and then weeps about it.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.] A young fan lets rip as Sunderland take on Man United. Photograph: Getty
Do you know who really liked football? Carlos. We soon developed a rapport. Every Monday, he’d rush to my desk and we’d discuss the weekend’s matches. He was obsessed with playing style, formations and league tables. Meanwhile, I was the expert on the fights, the crying and the hissy fits. Suddenly, we were friends. He wasn’t just my scary boss who got annoyed that I didn’t know who Lynyrd Skynyrd were. We were bonding.



They say that to assimilate in a foreign country, you have to speak the language, and now I finally did. Did I make friends from learning about football? I would go out on a limb and say that yes, I did. I made friends with Dave at the Three store when I sat there for two hours after accidentally flushing my phone down the toilet. I bonded with a Ghanaian driver as we discussed a former Sunderland player from his country. In a hotel in the Lake District, there was a communication breakdown with a concierge that ended happily when we both agreed that [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]was a jerk and [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]a great goal scorer. When cab rides were too silent, no problem. Let’s talk about the match, driver.
***
Dinner in the north-east of England is different from dinner in Texas. Here the food is cooked well-done, the weather is colder and greyer, the company more polite, the table quieter.





Ian’s dad, brother and uncles are lifelong Sunderland season ticket holders. Ask them a question about what they want to eat, or their favourite movie, or their preference for boxers or briefs, and they will reply, “I’m easy.” Suggest that Jack Rodwell is a decent footballer and they are unleashed – animated, passionate, opinionated. I enjoy bantering with Ian’s brother and dad about football, but we argue a lot – mostly because there is one thing I haven’t been able to wrap my head around since my first game.
After that first Boxing Day match, on the walk from the Stadium of Light to the car with Ian, his dad, his uncle and his brother, I ask the question that’s on my mind.


Why would 46,000 people call themselves supporters when they gave the most vitriolic commentary on their own players?


“Why do we yell mean things at our own players?”
Silence. And then: “They just didn’t show up. For most of the match, they were bloody awful,” Ian says. “Good use of ‘we’, though,” he adds.
“But shouldn’t we be… supporting them? Encouraging them?”
Ian shakes his head and sighs.
“You know, like being positive and lifting them up?” I was still trying to make sense of why 46,000 people would call themselves supporters when they gave the most vitriolic, abusive commentary on their own players. Their support was downright terrifying.





“This was your first match, Jess. We’ve suffered years of pain while watching players go through the motions. I’ve been enduring this for 25 years,” Ian says. “Twenty-six years,” Ian’s older brother says. His dad: “Try 60 years.” And finally, I understand the British subtext: “You are a wide-eyed idiot.”
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.] ‘You got me into this…’: Jess with her husband, Ian. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Guardian
At my high school in Texas, there was a club called Senior Spirits. Senior Spirit members met to boost the egos of our sports teams and rally other students to support those teams. To quote from the yearbook, their mission was “to make posters and give our school spirit”. In the photo, a group of 20 girls wearing matching T-shirts and ponytails, grin at the camera, 100% heartfelt.
These weren’t cheerleaders. And they weren’t affiliated with the Steppers, the ultra-serious dancers who performed at pep rallies, the hour-long ceremonies dedicated to whipping up school spirit. Nor were they the student marching band that played during football matches to help stoke, yes, even more team spirit. Team spirit was like an elusive ghost permeating the school and we all had to worship it.



That spirit was partial to posters with marker pen and glitter, to ponytails, to cakes shaped like American footballs and prayers before the big game. It revelled in exclamation marks. It did not like folded arms and booing and sarcasm. It did not like being called a useless tw*t.
Apparently team spirit isn’t a thing in north-east England. So how do English secondary schools pump up their sports teams? I imagine the halls of these schools are lined with posters of a different sort: “You better not screw this up, Jones!” and “Don’t do any of that long-ball shit, Gibbons.”
I still struggle with this complete inversion, but it unlocked something core in the English mentality – how ingrained the cynicism is, as well as the tendency to proceed from a position of cautious defeat. Expect to lose so it hurts less when it happens, and if we win, no harm done.
Diehard football fans remain sceptical of me. At matches, I ask questions. I get looks when I yell cheerful encouragement. I can’t stop shouting, “At least you tried!” every time a player takes a shot but fails to score. Some have the gall to question my passion for football – until I do well at the pub quiz football round. If you love something, does it matter if you love it for all the wrong reasons? Apparently, to them, yes. But one thing was for sure: I was emotionally committed.
In May 2016, at the end of that year’s season, Sunderland were on the brink of doom, as we are every year. Hundreds of fans gathered at the Old Red Lion in Angel, north London, for one of the last matches of the season. I am 5ft 2in, so I left Ian and his friends and waded through Mackems to get to a good vantage point to watch the match. We were [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.], and this would seal everything: would we stay up and relegate bitter rivals Newcastle in the process?
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.] Awaydays… at the Drayton Park pub in north London, before taking on Arsenal at the Emirates. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Guardian
The first time we scored, someone’s pint of beer, spilt in jubilant joy and shock, doused my head. On the second goal, the shouts were deafening. On the third, a man threw his arms around me and together we jumped up and down and screamed with pure joy. I left the pub dazed, half-deaf, hair soaked in booze and my face aching from smiling.
I became a UK citizen last year. At a city town hall, I swore my allegiance to the Queen and stumbled through the national anthem with 17 other newly minted UK citizens. But that moment didn’t come close to the buoyant feeling of pure joy and belonging I felt in the arms of a stranger as we celebrated the victory of our beloved team. If the root of football passion is said to be a sense of family and place, then this Chinese Jewish Texan has found her new home.
Unfortunately, that home is sometimes a den of pain and despair. By the time you read this, we will have played three Championship matches in the new season. Ian assures me we will not have won one: Sunderland haven’t won a league game in August or September for four years in a row.
In April this year, we were finally [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.] with four matches left to play.
“Useless losers!” I yell at the players as Sunderland fail to score even one goal. It’s all over. Nothing to hope for now, no Match Of The Day to look forward to.
As I shout at the players, Ian pats me hard on the back. “Well done,” he says. I look at him, confused. “Now you know what it feels like to hate your own team.”
 Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.], including your name and address (not for publication).

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cyprussyd
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Re: If you read nothing else today you must read this

Post  Hieronymus on Sat Aug 19, 2017 1:39 pm

An interesting take on how you get sucked into being a SAFC supporter. I think she is right about the cynicism in British life compared with the USA. But my god we don't want cheerleaders and all that high school 'spirit' stuff here!! And I think she has found out that Sunderland supporters are the embodiment of the statement that "there is a thin line between love and hate" Very Happy
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Re: If you read nothing else today you must read this

Post  canary-dave on Sat Aug 19, 2017 2:41 pm

Hieronymus wrote:An interesting take on how you get sucked into being a SAFC supporter. I think she is right about the cynicism in British life compared with the USA. But my god we don't want cheerleaders and all that high school 'spirit' stuff here!! And I think she has found out that Sunderland supporters are the embodiment of the statement that "there is a thin line between love and hate" Very Happy

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Re: If you read nothing else today you must read this

Post  Spuggy on Sat Aug 19, 2017 3:02 pm

Can we have the ones with big pom poms ?
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Re: If you read nothing else today you must read this

Post  Nostalgic on Sat Aug 19, 2017 9:04 pm

I'm going to file that one away in the "now you know" draw, but I must say it is a lovey piece of observation.

Having said that about SAFC, I am watching a BBC World News piece about the Baghdad MUFC Supporters Club where Sunni and Shiite could not care less who was who as they all wore the same shirt.  

Football tribalism at its best.

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