Everywhere Else, It’s Called Football

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I’ve had a hard time making a baseball fan of my 9-year-old son, Gabriel. The night Enron Field opened, I pulled an Astros T-shirt over his then-2-year-old head and toted him downtown for the festivities. “Someday you’ll be able to take your kid to the old ball park and tell him you were there on opening night, with your dear old dad,” I said. Gabriel might have shrugged at the thought-I still wasn’t quite sure how to read his body language. In any event, baseball never took with him. Didn’t want to play it. Didn’t want to watch it. I learned how badly I’ve failed as a baseball dad last summer. We were at a game, sitting just behind home plate with an up-close view, when a pitcher came in high and inside, forcing the batter to hit the deck to avoid a beaning. That flash of intensity got Gabriel’s attention. “The pitcher’s going to get a yellow card!” he blurted.

Well, we’ll always have soccer.

Brian Mullan and Michael Harrington on November 10, 2007 in the Western Conference Championship at Robertson Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Dynamo won 2 to 0.

We got soccer around the same time, because I’m a middle-aged convert. (I was never a hater like nationally syndicated sports talker Jim Rome, who has semifamously quipped, “My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball.”) The beautiful game never really made sense to me, even though I’ve lived for long stretches in soccer-loving countries; that, of course, would be almost any country except this one. I took to bullfighting instead.

But in the summer of 2006, between the World Cup and the arrival in Houston of a likeable and successful Major League Soccer franchise (the Dynamo moved here from San Jose), I finally got it. I saw what was there all along, hidden from North American eyes in plain sight. The beauty and the passion of the game, that is.

I already got the beauty part, sort of. Over the years I’d watched a few key World Cup matches, and there were moments when I’d had to admit that the action was spectacular. But they were just moments. The rest of the time-the long, long stretches when nobody scored-the running and passing blurred together for me, and I felt like I was watching a kind of human lava lamp, with a blob of indistinguishable bodies drifting from one end of the screen to the other.

Still, in early summer of 2006 I made a point of going to a sports bar to watch the U.S. play Italy-the eventual World Cup champions-in an opening round match (I imagine I referred to it back then as a “game”). Somehow the whole thing clicked for me. For the first time I saw the epic struggle. I saw that the overmatched U.S. team had to play beyond its limits to tie the mighty Italians. Actually, it took the flow of red American blood to get me so worked up. Forward Brian McBride took an intentional elbow to the cheekbone from his brutal Italian counterpart, and McBride had to play on with stitches in his face. Which he did, with grim determination. I was incensed by the inhuman sharpness of the Italian elbow and-having been born after World War II-was for the first time in my life crying out for the U.S. to beat the hell out of Italy.

It was invigorating to root so unambiguously for America. I don’t throw myself heart and soul behind many other U.S. teams, such as the Olympic basketball team. I became a sports fan during a time when America only lost international basketball competitions because Russian judges cheated. The display that the “Dream Team” (Jordan, Barkley, et al.) put on in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (the first Olympics in which NBA players participated) was vaguely embarrassing, as if we were using Panzers to overrun Senegalese cavalry. But we’re not a soccer superpower, or even a power, so I could cheer with a clear conscience for our guys.

Something else got to me that day. I went to Rice Village to watch the game, but couldn’t get into my favorite bar there-Brian O’Neill’s-because of the crowd. Peeking in from the outside, I saw that the place was filled with outfitted partisans. Italia shirts were everywhere.

Intrigued by the exotic crowd, I came back often to Brian O’Neill’s, sometimes finding a perch, sometimes standing, but watching as many games as I could. In the process, I found Houston’s dazzling internationality on full display. Outside of going to the Consulate Ball, which I don’t really recommend, I don’t know how you’d get a more communal experience with the city’s Germans and Argentines and Brits. And yes, Italians. The good-sized bar would fill with a typically 50-50 split between the fans of each side. For the thrilling Germany-Argentina quarterfinal, the crowd seemed evenly divided between square heads (my people) and Argentines, or at least South Americans. As the match built to an almost unbearable tension, just before the penalty kicks, Germans began chanting, “Deutschland! Deutschland!” That frankly created a sort of delicious uneasiness. Are you really allowed to chant that name? Why the hell not?

I was nearly beside myself when the grand climax-the Italy-France final-arrived. At this point Italy was for me a hated and fearsome foe, so I took up the French cause without much prodding-or head-butting, as it were.

I was finally able to get a group together for a match; maybe my friends hoped I would finally shut up about how exciting it all was. My sister-in-law flew in from California so she could watch the finals in all the intense splendor of Brian O’Neill’s. We got there just as the place opened, a couple of hours before kickoff, and scrambled in among a wave of Italia and France shirts to take the last open table.

Time passed. I ate a hearty English breakfast. Partisans began to chant. The tension in the room ratcheted up and up, and five minutes before kickoff I felt like I needed to either scream or explode.

Nature must have felt the pressure, too. Out of the (literal) blue boomed a fantastic and unnervingly close thunderclap, the kind that makes you forget that you’re about to watch a World Cup final. We all jumped out of our chairs, determined that we were still alive, and then looked back at the multiple television screens-all of which had gone blank. The lighting bolt had hit a nearby transformer.

People rushed out of the bar, the Italians headed one way and the French another, as if they had a prearranged Plan B for watching the match. I slumped back in my chair, deflated. I had never felt a room lose so much energy so fast.

I lingered awhile, hoping power would be restored. When the waitresses started to leave, I followed. I said something to one of them about how much money the bar was going to lose that day, and she looked truly forlorn. Brian is a great boss, she said, and she hated for him to take such a loss. “You mean there really is a Brian O’Neill?” I asked.

It took quite a while to find a bar with a working feed, and by that time the excitement of the moment felt lost. Then came Zidane’s incredible folly, the head butt heard ’round the world, and the penalty kicks. I hated for Italy to win, but had to admit it was quite a show.

After all that angst, I felt committed to the game for good.

I signed up for the Fox Soccer Channel and worked at choosing an English Premiere League team to support. If you follow such things, it’s perhaps predictable that I wound up with Arsenal, with its highly eclectic fan base. Supporters range from Fidel Castro to Queen Elizabeth to Osama bin Laden to Spike Lee. It’s easy to love a team referred to affectionately as “The Arse,” and one that plays such a mesmerizing, fast-breaking game. Imagine the Phoenix Suns without the timeouts-a sleek perpetual-motion machine.

I’m a soccer enthusiast-not an expert. Still, I can tell that the now two-time-MLS-champion Dynamo couldn’t hang for long with splendid Arsenal or Manchester United, or gritty Liverpool. (I kind of want to be a Liverpool fan, but I’m afraid I’m not man enough.) But the Dynamo is a team that is easy to love. It helps to win, of course, especially in a title-deficient town like Houston, but mainly I’m with them because of the intense, team-first way they play.

Their games at Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus are by far the best sports experience in town. By the end of the season, 30,000 were turning up to scream like banshees. They were thunderously loud without the corporate promptings that mar Astros and Rockets games. (I ignore the Texans because their owner, Bob McNair, was a major contributor to the Swiftboat Veterans’ anti-Kerry campaign, and because the Texans passed on Vince Young.) Fans stand and yell and whoop because of what’s happening on the field, or because they simply feel like it, not because the P.A. system told them to.

Then there are the fans who never stop yelling-or sit down. The orange-clad Dynamo supporter groups (as fan clubs are referred to in soccer-ese) bang on makeshift drums, and yell and sing and wave their flags, including one with an enormous orange portrait of Che Guevara, until they wear themselves out, usually sometime after the match has ended. Sitting near them and occasionally getting in on the singing (and cursing) makes for a loud, but endorphin-releasing, experience.

One last thing about the two groups of supporters, and the way that soccer and the Dynamo address the current immigrant “crisis.” The Anglo supporter club is called the Texian Army, while the Latino group goes by El Batallòn. You may detect some signs of racial disharmony here, especially if you know that the team was originally supposed to be called the Houston 1836, named for the founding year of the city. When some local Latino leaders pointed out that the year in question wasn’t such a great one for their ancestors, team leadership panicked, scrambled, renamed the team, and came out well to the good. Can you really compare chanting “Let’s go Dynamo” with “Let’s Go 1836?” “Beat the hell out of 1837,” maybe? Local talk-radio hosts took this display of Latino power as just one more sign that soccer was inherently un-American, but everybody else came out of the unpleasantness happy. So here’s a clear example of a power structure’s bowing to apparently racially charged demands made by “the other,” but then being glad they did. Just as our own wildly conflicted country might one day, if we’re smart.

If you’re looking for conflict in The Texian Army versus El Batallòn angle, forget it. The Texian Army sings cheerfully in Spanish, chanting refrains that seemed to materialize out of thin air when the Dynamo first arrived in Houston. “A donde vayas, siempre estaremos/eres mi vida, lo que mas quiero/Dynamo Dynamo …” Where you go, we’ll always be there; you are my life, the one that I love.

I get excited just typing the words.

David Theis is a writer living in Houston. He is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.