SOCCER IS, as novelist and journalist Jonathan Wilson says in his new memoir, Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball (Bloomsbury), “a great and democratic leveler,” and in that way it seems strange that Americans have never quite swung in its favor. Millions have and do play — AYSO will celebrate its 50th birthday next year and that organization alone claims over 500,000 annual participants — but apart from World Cup years, it seems largely lost on us. It’s strange, really, as it seems uniquely tied to how we live: it’s a game where the center can never hold, a game which resembles real conflict and emotion, where the constant fluctuation of action contains no easy resolutions, reminding us that life is usually encapsulated by the slimmest margin, most of us happy to get by 2-1.
The truth is Americans have long had a fraught relationship with professional soccer. Leagues have failed here on a fairly continuous basis for over a hundred years, though currently the MLS has taken what seems to be a fair foothold by recognizing they’re a niche: thus, they run their season from March through December (their championship, the MLS Cup, took place on December 7, Real Salt Lake against Sporting Kansas City, in case you don’t keep up), which is to say at precisely the same time as professional baseball, football, and basketball. It’s a model that has at least made it possible to be a fan of real soccer in America again — indoor soccer may as well be pinball for its relation to the actual sport — while also allowing us to ignore it entirely if we so choose. The matches take place in small stadiums (or stadiums with reduced capacity) so that the experience is intimate, collegial, and focused on the sport itself, not some other spectacle. Professional soccer in America is an altogether unobtrusive thing compared to soccer in the rest of the world, where religious and cultural attachments are made with teams into seeming perpetuity, and compared to the rest of American sports, say, the NFL, with its giant stadiums, exorbitant ticket prices, Kardashian-level attention to celebrity, breathless analysis, and shocking fan violence. (The most scared I’ve ever been in my life was during a Raiders game … and I’m a Raiders fan.)
In the 1970s, soccer tried the NFL model, at least in terms of spectacle. There was a brief boom when the New York Cosmos of the ill-fated North American Soccer League brought over an ever-increasing number of former greats, starting with the greatest of them all, Pele, in 1975, followed in quick succession by the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, and Johan Neeskens, mixing them with the occasional home-grown talent like Ricky Davis. And for a time — specifically, 1975-1982 — it seemed like Americans might just cotton to the professional sport, or at least New Yorkers might, or fans wherever the Cosmos showed up: the Cosmos regularly drew over 40,000 fans to their home matches (and equal numbers on the road), eventually topping over 70,000 fans crammed into the Meadowlands. At the same time, though, in other major American cities, attendance was just slightly less fervent if Pele wasn’t on the pitch.
In Oakland, for instance, where the Stompers played in 1978 (and only 1978 … before that, they played in Connecticut and were called the Bicentennials, perhaps the least intimidating sports name, ever, and then after Oakland they moved to Edmonton and became the Drillers, and then they ceased to be, period), I vividly recall sitting on the field for a game against the Memphis Rogues and being able to hear Charlie Mrosko, a German midfielder, swearing about the attendance. There were, maybe, 5,000 people in the stands at the Oakland Coliseum. But what I remember most of all about the game — I’d attend several that lone season — was that the Stompers had two Jewish players: former Olympian (and Playgirl model) Shep Messing and a defender named Sam Rosenthal, an Israeli in the twilight of his career. Only seven years old, I was already well acquainted with the fact that there were very few people running around any sport with anything approximating my last name, much less my religion (of which I had and have very little) and culture. I decided right then that I would love soccer. And sure enough, I wound up playing for years myself, at an exceptionally poor level, which didn’t really matter to me. It was the first sport I learned, the first sport I loved, a sport I still play at night, in my dreams, on my poor wife’s shins. Jonathan Wilson’s wife has suffered likewise, her sleep trampled by the occasional kick or elbow as her husband dreamt of the game, but Wilson’s unconscious life might well have been working out more than just a few friendlies.
Wilson grew up in post-World War II England playing soccer in a North West London neighborhood filled with other Jewish families. His father, largely disabled, worked in a synagogue, and his mother worked as a secretary; a working class life neither particularly desired, and against which Wilson’s mother most notably chafed. But sport, in particular, was a dark spot for Mrs. Wilson, a woman prone to outsized anger and recrimination, particularly as it related to anything that seemed outside traditional Jewish values. Once, when Wilson told wealthy friends of his parents that he’d like to be a “footballer” when he grew up — a childish hope anyone might have — his mother exploded:
The moment we were safely ensconced in our Ford Anglia for the drive home, my mother, in a fury, whipped round in the passenger seat and slapped me hard across the face. She began to scream: “A footballer! Why couldn’t you have said ‘a barrister’ or something professional?”
His mother’s fury would only increase after her husband’s death — with his older brothers off to their lives, she raised Jonathan alone — as he became more interested in soccer and young women not of the Jewish persuasion, a pattern of suffering familiar in the history of Jewish humor, but not an experience one probably wants to live through with a mother prone to the occasional physical and emotional abuse. At one point, Wilson explains that The Manchurian Candidate had nothing on his mother, as she didn’t need to “plant a miniature electronic device in her sons’ brains in order to exert control.”
And yet, for all the control that she exerted, Wilson managed to flee — onto the field, into the classroom, into books, and around the world. In a series of Zelig-like experiences, the author found himself falling into the world of literature, politics, and culture, constantly sweeping through life in the direct or near proximity of greatness and history, failing upward in some cases (particularly in college, it seems), while reckoning with his Judaism, his sexual desires, and frequently his need to find a decent pitch to play on, in lands far and wide. In Russia, with his longtime girlfriend Eleni on a research trip in 1975, he dines with a Jewish painter named Zhenia Levitin and feels the weight of who he isn’t after the artist asks him if he’s traveled in Israel, a place Russian Jews were often violently persecuted for even hoping to visit. Wilson admits that he’s been there, yes — a trivial thing for the author that has to be profound for the painter:
I knew that Jews from the West visiting Russia often held clandestine meetings with courageous protestors and passed or smuggled prayer books and other banned materials. I was not of their number, and felt a pang of guilt, a coward’s remorse that my suitcase was clean for inspection. If Zhenia wanted to pursue our conversation he quickly thought better of it, nervous perhaps about the infamous listening devices in Soviet apartments. He never smiled throughout the evening, but he sang. At the end of our meal he began, slowly and firmly, a song that seemed to have many verses and which he sang to the end very solemnly.
Therein lies the metaphorical weight of being Jewish: there often seems to be more that you can or should be doing, either in the name of those who have been or are oppressed, or simply because there might come a time when you no longer have choices you’ve come to take almost for granted. Tolstoy called the Jews “the emblem of eternity,” and with that label comes the elastic guilt that has forever been the touchstone of Jewish comedy and drama, so while Wilson’s memoir is frequently light-hearted, it achieves its tone from self-deprecation and irony. The search for meaning hanging over and beyond has to do with the question of what turned Wilson’s mother into a woman so filled with rage — her anger at any of her children engaging romantically with non-Jews is Vesuvian; her more general anger — so profound that Wilson himself can only really recall one good day with her as a child — suggests that the Wilson family had suffered mightily in some secret way during the war (well, secret to Jonathan Wilson), the specter of the Holocaust lingering somewhere in the fringes of Wilson’s life. Specifically, however, her lifelong dismay that Wilson has become fond of sports seems disproportionate, contextually, and therefore comedic, until you recognize it is tragedy.
In his forward to The Treasury of Jewish Humor, historian Nathan Ausubel writes:
One must not make the mistake in thinking that the self-depreciation of Jewish character you find in Jewish humor is an admission of moral inferiority to other peoples. Other peoples, argues Dr. Freud, are perhaps less ready to admit their shortcomings … In almost every section of this book will be found characterizations bearing striking resemblance to one another, and this notwithstanding the fact they were written in different languages, countries and times. This is due to the fact that wherever Jews have lived they have had common traditions to draw from almost the same historic experiences. Similar circumstances give rise to similar psychologic types, defying some of the laws of time and geography.
It’s a long, perhaps metaphysical way of saying what might be true about life, Jewish or otherwise: we laugh or else we’d cry. In Wilson’s case, his joy is found with a soccer ball at his feet, but even that joy comes with a unique dread inherent in the cultural and religious bonds and divisions that characterize the sport outside of the United States. As a youth, Wilson feared the skinheads who’d fight him on the streets of England, or who would chant “Kill the Yids” during a match, as much as he enjoyed his mother’s disapproval — all any young person needs to revel in any activity, generally, is knowing that his parents hate it — both of which conditions colored his passion for soccer with something he only recognized far later in his life, once he began covering the World Cup for The New Yorker:
If you grow up attending soccer games in England, you are so used to spine-chilling episodes that the adrenaline flow they bring becomes an essential part of your chemical makeup. […] Once I realized that my entire soccer consciousness was perverted and that I could get by without terror in the stands, the games in World Cup USA took on an air of sublimity. The English weren’t coming: it was heaven.
It’s a stirring revelation, the connection of trauma to joy, and that it brings Wilson a unique ability to see the game for the first time without, literally, needing to keep watching his back, provides a fascinating corollary to his personal life as well. He’s spent his career in search of truth in literature — bouncing from England to America to Israel and then back to America to settle into a life as a writer and academic — and in that time soccer has drifted alongside him, the game staying the same inside the lines, but altering course in the stands. It’s a metaphor, for sure, and one that perhaps the average person wouldn’t ascribe to his life — the idea that fandom can and may help define actual daily existence (with perhaps the exception belonging to any Chicago Cubs fan) — but in Wilson’s case, the metaphor and the attendant epiphany feel earned. As he coaches his own son’s team and finds that youth soccer has morphed into “a locus of anxiety and repressed competitive angst,” but not on the kids’ part, just the parents’, and that his own childhood experience of playing without any involvement from his own parents — which, at the time, generated sadness — was in fact the more pure experience, a sort of clarity begins to wash over the book:
My sons and their friends played on grass that was green and mown, on teams where everyone owned their own ball, and wore designer cleats and spotless uniforms with names and numbers on the back of their shirts. At the early stages, K-5, they were awarded gleaming trophies simply for participation. If you had told me about this soccer nirvana as a child, I would have been full of envy. On the other hand, the thought of my own or my friends’ parents running my soccer life would have seemed both absurd and highly undesirable.
This is actually a fairly humorous moment — Wilson’s examination of youth sports in America’s suburbs includes the fact that he was also an assistant coach for his son’s baseball team, a sport he knew nothing about, but where he nevertheless enjoyed a “vital but diminished” status, since his main job was to keep kids from being hit in the head — but it also highlights the civic versus the psychological: as a child in England, Wilson played soccer to represent his culture and, in a way, save himself; while in America, most children seem to be playing to save their parents.
Kick and Run contains much more than deep thoughts on the nature of soccer and Judaism — in fact, there are long stretches when it has little do with either, and instead details the peripatetic Wilson as he searches for love and meaning — and the final chapters of the book are best left for the reader’s discovery in whole cloth, as Wilson begins to unravel who and what made his parents into the people they were, a revelation that will resonate and possibly make the reader want to flip back and start again, as it turns out the margins of a life are not as simply drawn as the lines on a field of play.
Tod Goldberg directs the Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside. His new book, Gangsterland, is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2014.