Upland, Indiana, 20 May 2003 | Poet Thom Satterlee, assistant professor of English at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, answered questions via e-mail. A native of Canton, Georgia, Satterlee played youth football for the Cherokee (County) Chiefs, earning some silverware in 1974. He has published several poems about football, with Pelé as the protagonist, in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, and a critical article on football in the United States, "Making Soccer a 'Kick in the Grass' ": The Media's Role in Promoting a Marginal Sport, 1975–1977" (International Review for the Sociology of Sport 36 [September 2001]). More information about Satterlee is available here.
GG: You write in "Making Soccer a 'Kick in the Grass' " that Pelé was a "catalyst" to U.S. soccer. It seems that he has been something of a catalyst to your own writing. How did this literary relationship develop?
Pelé, vintage 1958, in Santos kit. (Pelé.net)
TS: When I was ten or eleven years old I had a poster of Pelé doing a bicycle kick. It was an ad for Puma cleats, and he was wearing his uniform for Brazil. Anyway, it hung just above my bed, and although I never talked to it the way the character in Bend It Like Beckham talks with the English star, Pelé was always there, always a presence in my childhood. In fact, the first book I read was his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game. When I had to give my book report in front of my classmates, I even pretended that I was Pelé. Then much later, in my twenties and thirties, I started writing poems about Pelé, sometimes in his voice, as I do in the poem called "Pelé to Rosemari: Chile, 1962" [Aethlon, fall 1998]. I suppose that the instinct that makes a kid want to wear the jersey of his favorite player and to reenact the player's moves is the same motivation behind my poems about Pelé. I still have an urge to be like Pelé. Poetry, by the way, is a much safer way to stay kid-like when you're past thirty and have pulled your hamstring a couple times. It's a lot easier to write as though you're Pelé than to play like him.
GG: What about Pelé—and what about football itself—calls for treatment in poetic form?
TS: In a general sense, sport and poetry have much in common. Robert Frost once used tennis to explain the "game" aspect of writing verse. The net, he said, provides a constant challenge in the same way that the form of a poem taxes the poet, requiring him to make certain shots. But football suggests its own analogies. Like a good football player, a poet has to be patient and resist forcing a big play. It wouldn't hurt a poet to have the peripheral vision that Pelé is famed for. Poets are always trying to see more! But I haven't exactly answered your question. As I think about football and Pelé as subject matter in a poem, I would have to say that they aren't especially good subjects, not any better than countless other inspirations for poems. But if football happens to be one of your passions, as it is in my case, then the subject can carry a poem far.
GG: A New York Times writer recently wrote about Tivo—a digital TV service that stores programs for on-demand viewing—that the capacity to tailor media so closely to his interests made him feel "outside of culture." Has being a follower of world football made you feel "outside of" culture in the United States? What aspect(s) of the game, since your time playing youth football and supporting the NASL's Atlanta Chiefs, has continued to attract your devotion?
TS: I definitely feel, as I did back in the '70s, that football in the United States is an alternative, almost an underground sport. Whenever I come across other devotees, I sense an immediate bond. We share something that most others don't know about. Recently, I learned that a colleague of mine grew up watching Soccer Made in Germany. For half of an hour we talked about the German stars of the mid-'70s, like Gerd Müller (we called him "Garbage Gerd" because he so often scored goal-line shots), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Harald Schumacher. We even did our impersonations of Toby Charles, the British announcer who called the games: "Oh, that one wasn't far off target!" "That was a cannon shot!" Or when a player missed an important opportunity, "He'll be losing his jersey, he will." It was great fun remembering this show that, as I recall, nobody in my elementary school watched except me.
In a similar way, I enjoyed hearing announcer Tommy Smyth shout, "in the onion bag!" whenever a goal was scored in last summer's men's World Cup. I suppose I've always loved watching soccer for colorful comments like these, but also for the pleasure of being (or at least feeling) deviant by paying attention to a sport that doesn't rank among the most popular in my home country.
GG: What is your own view on why Americans, despite participating in soccer in such large numbers (primarily as children and as these children's parents), fail to take to the game as followers?
TS: I would have to agree with Andrei Markovits [with Steven Hellerman, in Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton, 2001)] when he says that soccer simply didn't catch on in this country at the most opportune historical moment. I believe he identifies the key reason. Once football, baseball and basketball (and to some extent hockey) took their spots as our top sports, there was no room left for another. The conditions (especially economic ones) for allowing a sport to rise to dominance have vanished. Soccer is at a permanent disadvantage in part because it doesn't have a long, steady history in this country. And tradition, perhaps as much as great players, brings fans to the stadium. Think of the rivalries between teams in Europe or in South America, some of them going back half of a century or more. A grandparent, parent and child can all be attracted to a game based on a rivalry that dates back before any of them was born. Not so in the United States. Our leagues have formed and disbanded too many times, and even the teams that existed in the '70s no longer exist.
GG: Your poem in issue 5 of The Global Game, "The Soccer Field in Canton, Georgia," suggests, on one level, that this game—soccer—takes up some part of the American mind, even in the mundane but widespread activity of lining a football field. Is the place of soccer in American culture much more subtle than what Markovits and Hellerman (in Offside) are looking for, a pursuit that people "breathe, read, discuss, analyze, compare, and historicize"?
TS: I appreciate the methods that these authors use to demonstrate the difference between sport culture (what you quoted above) and activity (which the authors define as simply "what people do"). In the final analysis, soccer in this country is a popular activity, but it never has and probably never will achieve the status of an important sport culture.
And yet, you may be right in suggesting that soccer's place in American culture is larger and more important than Markovits and Hellerman can show by their methods. They focus on such indicators as coverage in newspapers, representation in movies and books, and the adoption of sport-specific vocabulary into the common idiom. What about other factors, though? I've been noticing the number of microwave meals and sports drinks that use soccer images for advertising. I was in a Subway not too long ago, and saw that they were selling (or else giving away in kids' meals) the figurine of a soccer player. My study is too anecdotal to prove anything, but it does make me wonder if the advertisers aren't betting on soccer as a sport that masses of people identify with. Maybe if we consume more food with soccer labeling we can eat our way to the top of the sports pyramid. But more likely, we'll just get fat.
Editor's note: For more information on Pelé, including a lengthy interview, visit the site related to Alex Bellos's Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (Bloomsbury, 2002).