clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This is what it's like to watch futbol in football country

Steven Godfrey watched Sunday's US Men's National Team match at a bar in Nashville, and found fans caught up in World Cup fever in the middle of S-E-C Country.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - After USMNT's 2-2 tie Sunday, I saw a United States fan pound his fist into the sidewalk outside a strip of bars in Nashville's midtown district. And he wasn't alone.

Yet these distraught futbol types weren't the guys I saw with the Indiana Hoosiers Soccer t-shirts on or the Pakistani grad students from Vanderbilt I drunkenly asked for advancement probabilities or even the mustachioed kids in cuffed pants and Everton kits that had blown over the river from East Nashville. These were in no way members of soccer's fringe fandom inside the U.S. And this was in no way the kind of bar any of those people would normally be caught dead in.

No. These were America's basic, white, male bros, out in the Tennessee heat to curse the freshly Googled name of Silvestre Varela. To witness this was to know that Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy's argument against our nation's interest in soccer was invalidated by the sect of American fandom who boasts the fiercest amount of xenophobia: the SEC football fan. And I doubt a lifelong MLB writer fastened to the I-95 umbilical cord has ever strived to meet, let alone understand, this red state everyman he falsely predicted would forever reject the world's game.

To be fair to any critic of soccer's long-debated ascension in America: I wasn't a true believer until that point. But I watched as they threw their Titleist visors and bellowed the most guttural of "fucks," in a sadness whose origin translates globally. There were hundreds of them in each bar, thousands in total, spilling out of windows before game time on Sunday. For soccer.

True story: during SEC football's Media Days about four or five years ago, I listened to the league's head of officiating Doyle Jackson try and rally the assembled officials and media to address American football's concussion and head trauma problems sooner rather than later.

"When I drive around different towns in Alabama, I'm seeing kids playing soccer. Everywhere, a soccer field. That's fine, but I'd hate to see the sport of football disappear, and I know y'all would too," Jackson said.

When Jermaine Jones scored the equalizer Sunday, the first discernible words I heard came from a fellow Ole Miss graduate at my table: "Greenwood, Mississippi," he said smiling, referencing one of the midfielder's childhood residences. The fact itself was far less notable than the mere knowledge of it. And yet the pride in it was as strong as anything ever immortalized by Larry Munson or Daniel Moore.

At its true social core, Nashville is driven by the confluence of young SEC graduates. It's Atlanta before Atlanta -- Grizzard's Atlanta, Georgia -- with only an eighth of that bigger town's Big Ten snowbirds and a huge boost of Kentucky to round out the level of college sports passion from August through April. If any city or specific social structure should shrug or even bristle at the concept of World Cup soccer, it should be this one. Hell, it should've been that particular bar, teeming with bro after bro clad in bald eagle fighter jet tank tops that shed any trace of irony once the score reached 2-1, USMNT.

Yet it was a single guy, the one we're supposed to assume is the least likely. The one in a frat rush t-shirt from UGA and a Braves cap, starting the chants in a nasal, Piedmont drawl:

"TIM-E HOW-ARD." /clap clap clapclapclap

"YURG-N CLINS-MAN." /clap clap clapclapclap

"TIM-E HOW-ARD." /clap clap clapclapclap

This evolved into the accepted USMNT chant, led by the same guy. As it grew, my eye caught a group of SEC football players, including one starting quarterback, clapping along in the bar.

And when the lead was blown, the gutted shock was as pure a quality of any Iron Bowl upset, except that an exiting crowd in the thousands was all on the same team. Sunday's game had all the same boozy dejection of a crucial college football loss, only with quantified congregation of sufferers. Provincialism prevents me from explaining exactly why, but that's a strong recipe for popularity growth in the South.

If you don't believe in soccer in America, Dan, don't go to Chicago's Grant Park on Thursday. Don't go to Seattle or Portland. Even Kansas City.

Come South, way South. Come where you aren't supposed to, where it can't possibly work (about a mile from the NHL arena, I might add). And when you get here, come to the bar you're not supposed to go to for an event like this. See the people who aren't supposed to be skipping work to watch a sport like this.

In case a miracle happens against Germany, come lock arms with a generation of Southern bros discovering the fire of the sports world. They'll probably buy you a Miller Lite.