By John Sloop (@NCAMookie), columnist
Sometimes, when duty calls (or, really, just your job), it is often at an inconvenient time. For me, last week, it wasn’t just at an inconvenient time; it was at the worst freaking time imaginable.
After gnashing my teeth for days, however, and cursing the heavens, I decided that the only route available was to try to learn something from the nightmare of regret I was going through.
As some of you know, I had to ask Davey Shepherd to write my column last week, which focused on Nashville SC’s first match in Major League Soccer. The biggest soccer crowd in Tennessee history, the biggest event the team is likely to see for years, and I had to ask Davey to write it because, FFS, I WASN’T AT THE GAME!
As a card carrying member of Nashville Football Club since its inception, as a fan who has followed the team in every manifestation, it was painful, excruciatingly painful, to not be at that game. More than 59,000 fans (a number we are unlikely to match for years), and I missed it. I completely missed it. I will never get that experience back again.
My reasons for not being in attendance are sound, even if it hurts. Over a year ago, I agreed to teach a spring 2020 course at Vanderbilt entitled “Soccer: Media, Art, Culture.” Part of the agreement in teaching that course was that I would leave with a group of students in late February to go to England in order to get immersed in various aspects of soccer culture. When I agreed to this plan, of course, NSC had yet to schedule its first game. Yet my travel dates were set in stone.
So, this is how I found myself at the Chicago airport, laying on the floor, watching the first half of the game on a student’s iPad prior to getting on a plane to London and missing the second half. I ended up watching the freaking first game—the game I’ve been dreaming of for years—on replay the next night in London.
I feel nauseated now, just thinking about it.
Nonetheless, I was in London, then Liverpool, and Manchester, to give the students a miniature tour of soccer/culture in England, so I had work to do. During the week, we toured a number of stadiums—Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford, Emirates, and Anfield. We watched Chelsea play Liverpool in the FA Cup. We had interviews with a long-term Chelsea supporter and journalists from the Liverpool Echo. We took a tour of the National Football Museum (aside: if you can ever get to Manchester, this is a MUST) and, on a lark, toured a Beatles Museum. We ate a lot of food, watched games in pubs, tried to get a sense of what it would be like to be a part of that long, historic soccer culture.
Then we came home, having missed the first game of NSC’s MLS life and having watched the second on an iPad late at night in an airport hotel in Manchester.
Having spent a week exploring the historical tradition and history of soccer while watching a new birth back at home was a gut wrenching experience but one that I could not help but learn from.
So, here are a few reflections:
1. While carrying on tradition is a burden to be taken on with pride, the building of tradition looks like more fun.
As I stood in each stadium, as I watched games, as I went to the National Museum, I felt how the long, long history of each team weighs upon the current fans. They love the team, they have fun—don’t get me wrong, but history bears down upon them. When I watched the folks at Nissan on opening night, when I read the posts online, I saw a celebration, a making of tradition with people unawares; they were too wrapped up in the fun to really think about it.
2. It’s a good thing to be un-jaded.
At least for now, NSC fans are not jaded about the experience. Watching Chelsea win at Stamford Bridge, you could feel the energy of the crowd try to keep the team moving forward. You could also feel the disgust at missed opportunities. Watching NSC online, reading people’s comments, it was all pure joy, pure happiness. And we lost. The tifo, the cheers, the support after the game was over. Just beautiful.
3. Huge credit needs to be given to the Backline.
Over the last several years, the united Backline have been building a fairly coherent supporter’s section. They’ve taken criticism well and integrated more and more of their own work into the chants and songs. They’ve begun to create something somewhat unique. While there is a sense in which supporter’s sections are always stealing from one another, the Backline has become more coherent, more cohesive. Given that we seen to have settled in a capo-style supporter’s section, I wondered how prepared they would be to make the jump. When I talked to Stephen Robinson about this last year, he seemed fairly confident that they could scale up quickly with a bit of work. I had my doubts. He was right. I was wrong. On television, the support came across beautifully. In your words, in your discussions and memories, even more so. It was astounding.
So, let me be clear. I will never get over having to miss out on that first game. But it did give me a wonderful opportunity to think about the difference between maintaining and creating a club culture. And here is the thing: While creation is hard work, especially when it’s done right, it can also be a time of the most intense joy. And this community is making it work that way. Fanship, even in the time of COVID-19, even in the midst of a devastating tornado, can be a thing of beauty. Nashville and Nashville SC fans keep showing us that.