Difficult art is usually difficult because it's disorientingly new: A novel that willfully breaks language, a movie made of discontinuous images, a song that's all clipped feedback and horns from nowhere. Our brain prefers to deal with well-worn patterns, which is to say it likes things that are like other things we already like, and so art that takes familiar components and rearranges them in a tornadic fashion is jarring. Trying to understand difficult art is like walking inside a dark room on a bright day. You need time to make sense of what's around you, not because the objects themselves are all that strange, but because everything is cloaked in darkness you can't yet see through.
Soccer is difficult art, if you're an American picking it up post-childhood. I mean, it's not as bewildering as the explain-soccer-to-us-like-we're-8-year-olds video Fox ran before the 2011 Champions League final would have you believe, but there's a lot that's alien: the lack of a postseason, transfer fees, the variable importance of domestic and international cups, multiple national leagues, relegation and promotion, out-of-whack competitive balance, the sheer amount of teams and players, etc. There's terminology to learn, and one has to, as with any sport, become attuned to the rhythm and minutiae of the game. It's not like it requires supreme intelligence to develop a working knowledge of this stuff, but someone who has spent most of his or her life watching the NFL or NBA has to be willing to endure periods of bewilderment and occasionally type dumb questions into Google.
This is actually a lot of fun. In Alex Pappademas' "I Suck at Football" column that ran last season at Grantland, he wrote about how his daughter understood the sport as "the show where the men try to get the ball and then they fall down," which is about as apt a description of football as you're going to find. (Plus it's way more pleasing than "war without guns.") Soccer is, when you're first trying to grasp it, a show about men who try to kick the ball toward the goal and then they fall down -- in the case of Arjen Robben, as if they've torn every muscle in their body. It's not much more complicated than that, though it's as rich as any other sport. Being a fan isn't so much about understanding how the game works as much as it's telling yourself stories about the machinery. We assign meaning to teams and players, favor some styles over others, delight in or are crushed by swings of luck. The men kick the ball toward the goal and then fall down, and we have a lot to say about that.
There are lots of men, of course -- many more than in any American sports league -- and so most people find it helpful to choose a rooting interest. If the sport isn't familiar, at least the epistemological method can be. In trying to embrace something as vast and heterogeneous as European soccer, it helps to focus on a single club and work outward from there. The wonderful consequence of watching the same team on a regular basis is that, along with beginning to forge an identity within a strange new context, you learn about the game through becoming accustomed to the way your team plays it. You become conscious of your team's approach and how its players operate within that approach -- all their inimitable flourishes and frustrating shortcomings. And conversely, you understand your team's rivals in opposition to that approach. You admire or are irritated by what other teams are and your team is not. Guardian soccer writer Sid Lowe tweeted out, in the midst of Athletic Bilbao's impressive 2011-12 campaign: "Athletic makes you think, 'balls, I wish I supported them,'" which is a simple and apt way of describing the pangs you sometimes feel when your team plays like a dump truck handles, and Bilbao's got a squad full of dive-bombing eagles.
This is all fine, if you have the stomach for it. The logic goes that if you stick with your team long enough, maybe they'll put together a run like Bilbao did in 2012, and you'll appreciate that incarnation of your team more because you had to suffer through some lean, uncompelling years. This is too much to take for some people, or the tribalistic aspect of team-specific fandom drives them away. (I can't really blame anyone who watched Cavs fans burn LeBron jerseys in the streets, and thought monogamistic fandom is stupid.) The alternative to this is Bethlehem Shoals' concept of Liberated Fandom.
There's a fair amount of literature on the topic, and I encourage you to enrich yourself by poring over FreeDarko's archives to find it, but it might be best summed up in a tweet Shoals sent out after the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals: "Liberated Fandom isn't about being mercenary. It's about being conflicted as hell when watching the Grizzlies advance means watching KD lose." Liberated Fandom is more nuanced than being a front-runner. It is about investing in and appreciating whatever one deems worthy of investment and appreciation. In not tethering oneself to a single team, you become agile. You can theoretically drink in more of what the sport has to offer. It's not cowardly and does not shield you from disappointment. It is more pain and more joy, perhaps not felt quite as intensely, but real enough to make you shake.
I've been thinking about modes of fandom because of this Roger Bennett article for ESPN FC, which explores the notion that soccer fans -- and specifically American soccer fans, since many of us haven't been devoted to our teams since age six -- might, due to the ever-changing landscape of sport, elect to follow players rather than teams. It's kind of a third way, somewhere between Liberated Fandom and the orthodox method. It's conservative in that you're still tethering yourself to a specific entity -- a dude instead of a logo -- but it allows for a new dimension flexibility. It feels progressive in that sports are mostly about players, not the institutions they play for. I'm not entirely sure if it works, though.
I have no time for people who purport to know the correct way of enjoying sports. We endure enough outside regulation in our everyday lives; we don't need even the slightest hint of fascism in what we do for fun. But I see one problem: If you're going to follow elite talents through European soccer, no matter their team, you will end up rooting almost exclusively for leviathans. As I wrote about the Gareth Bale transfer saga, teams like Real Madrid always win in the end. And I'm not sure that, in a team sport like soccer, rooting for players is exactly a thing. If you're a Tottenham fan who refuses to let go of Bale, do you hope that he whips in a perfect cross, and then Ronaldo whiffs on the header? Liberated Fandom makes sense because it posits that you don't have to root, necessarily. There is no side-taking, in a strict sense, and it turns spectating into something into which you can invest emotion and intellect, but in diffuse ways. Rooting for a player -- and only that player -- seems too limited and intense to function in any practical way.
I've been watching Atlético Madrid, my club of mostly arbitrary choice, for four years, and I've found the utility of my fandom has transmuted over that period. At first, Atléti were my way into the sport. There are a lot of matches on every weekend; I needed some method of knowing what to watch. I liked their uniforms and their little brother history with Real. I wasn't particularly attracted to their style of play, which was uninspired over those first couple of seasons, but you can develop a meaningful relationship with a team through disappointment and frustration. The team kind of pummels you like a child does his or her new baseball glove. You begin to love them for it, because they're the team you've picked and oh well. This is the stupidity of traditional fandom.
But it's useful stupidity in that it has helped me understand the game by peering through a pinhole. You might not be like me, but I needed some structure, a starting point from which to explore. Over the years, as I've wriggled through that pinhole and immersed myself further in the sport, I still like coming back to Atléti each weekend. They are the team I'm most familiar with and the one I care most about. I was thrilled, too, by Athletic Bilbao's 2011-12 run -- I watched a lot of them that year -- but I cannot know that team the way I know Atléti, and Bilbao fans feel the same way about everyone else's team. Our teams are a lot of things, and sometimes they are anchors that drown us, but they also provide us with an opportunity to perform a close reading on our fan experience. Through intimate knowledge of what our teams are, we can find meaning we can't find in being neutral spectators of a Man City-Chelsea clash. Those spectacles, of course, are great too, but sports are difficult art, and it's nice to have something you know.