Guardian blogger pricks both sides of US/UK sporting divide
Unable by temperament and conviction to create a “conventional” sports report, Steven Wells has built a Web 2.0 following by trusting his punk-poet instincts and inducing an irony-challenged foamy slaver among his American and UK readership.
Since the 2006 World Cup he has posted to the blog network at Guardian Unlimited (see list of articles), finding voice as a British expatriate in the City of Brotherly Love and gleefully exposing the dearly held, sometimes subconscious, shibboleths that both Americans and Brits possess about their sporting cultures.
Watching Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb guide the team on a series of downs and then suck oxygen on the sidelines as if he were leading an Everest assault, Wells asks: Is American football really a sport? In Wells’s language, he has conducted a “one-man street soccer jihad” to help smooth Americans’ transition to the beautiful game and to improve the country’s sporting sensibility as well as its democratic processes. He quickly flips, however, and mocks English arrogance contained in tired jokes about U.S.-variety soccerball.
On suggesting that Brazil playmaker Marta Vieira da Silva, following her display in the Women’s World Cup semifinal, was “probably better than at least half the players in the team you support,” he revealed the biases of what Wells calls 1953-vintage Guardian Man (see “The Female Footballer Who’s Better Than You,” Oct 3, and “Memo to Guardian Man: Time to Leave 1953 Behind,” Oct 16). Despite nominal status as readers of the most liberal mainstream English-language paper on the planet, few of the some 400 commenters to Wells’s postings on the subject could handle the idea. Wells suggests “cock golf”™ as a male-affirming alternative.
“From the British perspective, football is a measure of masculinity,” says Wells in our Oct 30 podcast. “It’s actually more important than possessing a penis.”
Reactions to Wells’s writing on such matters perhaps confirm that hopes for a birthing of enlightened, blogosphere-mediated citizenship are all a bit pie-in-the-sky. With his strings of compound modifiers and playful building of false dichotomies, Wells intentionally pushes an addled readership toward cognitive dissonance. This creates personal crisis, similar to that experienced among newly arriving seminary students when told that God does not wear a beard. A punk-rock conjugator, Wells rarely resorts to passive voice. His earlier publishing venture was Attack! Books, with the following as part of the mission statement: “The self-perpetuating ponce-mafia oligarchy of effete bourgeois wankers who run the literary scene must be swept aside by a tidal wave of screaming urchin tits-out teenage terror totty …” (see interview).
His is not the pro forma sports chatter of much of the mediated world:
I don’t think I’m capable of writing conventional sports journalism. I just don’t find it interesting enough. My wife makes me sit through Sky Sports News, where they have these by rote interviews with players. They never say anything remotely interesting. “You gotta respect the team we’re playing. We gotta take it one game at a time.” Most of the football magazines nowadays end with the question, “So, Wayne, how do you find the new Nike Predator?”
Judged by the rapidity of response, Wells’s most provocative commentary thus far came on Jun 15 (“Americans Are Soccer-Savvy … and That Scares Little Englanders”). He addresses David Beckham‘s arrival at L.A. Galaxy and takes on English and American conceptions of association football on the respective shores. To start scrolling through the 466 comments registered during the subsequent seven days is to commit oneself to a gray text stream that, for length, challenges one of the online Acts of Parliament.
Championing historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s attitude toward football as art, Wells writes of the rewards that association football offers the American polity:
[S]occer-playing America is massively liberal, loving, caring, socially conscious and nice. While soccer-hating America consists of increasingly isolated gangs of Bush-supporting, bible-bashing, gun-crazed, dungaree wearing, banjo-playing, quasi-fascist chicken-lovers and their twelve fingered, pin-headed, cyclopic, drooling monster children.
No problems here. Nevertheless, soon readers were tossing cultural grenades and debating the merits of American microbrews, among other tangents. Commenter 12string on Jun 18 chides Wells for a lack of social-scientific rigor: “[Y]ou show incredible ignorance of the average US population…. My kids have the normal number of fingers & are not slack-jawed, drooling idiots. You play to extreme, liberal typecasting assumptions and don’t have a single clue about what normal America (between the coasts) believes or does.”
Five-a-side football—one of Wells’s favorite variations—provides the conceit behind this rough-cut comedy experiment, No Skillz. Not a comedy classic, but enjoy Stephen Merchant‘s performance behind the microphone.
Misinterpretation of Wells’s column often falls along predictable lines, such that he on occasion has found the need to preempt well-worn patterns of argument: offense over the arrogance implicit in the phrase “World Series,” especially when used in America unironically; rage concerning use of “soccer” to mean “football”; and the entrenched belief, despite all available evidence, that Americans do not like “soccer.” One column, “For the Love of Blog” (Aug 20), consists solely of Wells anticipating his interlocutors’ objections. “The nondialectical cart having been presented first,” Wells imagines someone named postmodernmanpat typing, “it now falls to the mocked respondents to provide the subdialectical horse.” “I think the writer should be forced to choke on the dust at ground zero,” says the hypothetical kneejerk.
It would be wrong, though, to think that Wells’s interest lies solely with goading and obfuscation. It perhaps has taken an expatriate from the world’s most football-obsessed land to recognize the intrinsic merit, uniqueness and shortcomings of America’s own soccer culture. For Philadelphia Weekly, where Wells is arts and entertainment editor, he has written about the Anderson Monarchs, rare on the American scene for facilitating the participation of inner-city, African American girls on a traveling soccer club (“Bend It Like Janiah,” Jul 4). Soccer among anarchist and unabashedly left-wing American groups has also drawn Wells’s interest (“The Most Spectacular Left-Wing Action since Best,” Mar 14). He has chided America’s soccer establishment for its monoculturalism, drawing on research suggesting that whites have adopted soccer to avoid the racial mixing implicit in other games (“Racial Divide Driving a Wedge into Soccer’s Grassroots,” 17 Jun 05).
Wells’s wife, Katharine Jones, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Philadelphia University, has herself written on the Women’s United Soccer Association and sexist language as experienced by female supporters in England.
Extending his unstinting use of language to himself, Wells chronicles his fight against lymphatic cancer in 2006 (“The English Patient,” Philadelphia Weekly, 21 Jun 06). He might object, however, to use of the word “fight” to characterize the experience. “No one ever ‘battles bravely against cancer,’ ” he writes. “This is utter bullshit. You do your chemo, take your drugs and hang on for dear life.”
As to future work, Wells will continue his exegesis of the British and American cultural divide and has tentatively named his next book “The Girlie Gay Commie Soccer Threat to the American Way of Life.” One might guess that, despite his writing on a developing supporter culture in Major League Soccer, Wells will not soon be serving as Alexi Lalas‘s marketing assistant.
“If the MLS collapsed tomorrow it really wouldn’t matter that much,” Wells says. Then, referring to the overwrought depictions of British sporting imperialism, he adds, “We’re in their bases killing their dudes. We are the agile sporting monkeys, and we’re in football’s and baseball’s nests and eating all their eggs.”
- Clear-witted and funny to the end, Wells submitted his final column to Philadelphia Weekly 10 days before his death from lymphatic cancer on 24 Jun 09. “I blame it on the boogie,” he concludes. One of the few truth-tellers in world football, Wells was remembered at the Guardian “for his irreverent, acerbic wit and prolific use of expletives.” To football in the States and in Philadelphia, he lent a longtime supporter’s nurturing of irony to a corporate- and suburban-based soccer culture that often takes itself far too seriously. We hope that fans of Philadelphia Union, the MLS side he did not live to see, add a punk-infused tribute to swells as part of their match-day repertoire.
- Wells mentions the fleeting thrill he felt as a seven-year-old fan of Swindon Town, within three years of England having won the World Cup, at the shocking League Cup final victory over Arsenal, 3–1, at Wembley on 15 Mar 1969. He recalls the Wembley quagmire that resulted from the stadium’s hosting of a horse show not long before the match.
Not surprisingly, the final also forms part of Nick Hornby‘s psychic landscape. Less than one year an Arsenal supporter, Hornby describes the game, which he attended with his father, as a betrayal. After Swindon’s first, mud-assisted goal, Hornby writes in Fever Pitch:
For the first time, suddenly, I became aware of all the Swindon fans sitting around us, with their awful West Country accents, their absurd innocent glee, their delirious disbelief. I hadn’t ever come across opposing fans before, and I loathed them in a way I had never before loathed strangers.