Bada bing! Here’s DAN WILLIAMSON with the next part of our football on TV series, looking back at an often overlooked episode of the possibly the greatest TV drama show ever made.

Tony Soprano is one of television history’s greatest anti-heroes. A violent, law-breaking criminal who regularly cheats on his wife still somehow manages to elicit sympathy and even admiration from viewers. The Sopranos captures Tony in the midst of a mid-life crisis as he struggles to juggle domestic life with his other role as a high-ranking member of the New Jersey mafia. To deal with his problems Tony – played by the late James Gandolfini – regularly sees psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, a recurring character through the show’s eight-year run.

The Sopranos, which aired between 1999 and 2007, coincides with the decline of the Italian-American mafia, a theme touched upon regularly during the show’s six seasons. From its heyday in the 1950s, ’60s, and 70s the mafia’s demise was down to a number of intertwining factors. As many mobsters were aging, their riches meant they were reluctant to allow their sons to follow in their footsteps, as they were already able to offer them a better life. Stiffer prison sentences due to the RICO statute and drug offences meant that many mobsters were willing to do the unthinkable – turning against their former comrades and entering the Witness Protection Programme.

However, following 9/11 the FBI and other governmental agencies reallocated the bulk of their resources to counter-terrorism, allowing the mafia breathing room to flourish once again, albeit not at previous levels. This theme was portrayed in the show by Tony’s relationship with Agent Harris of the FBI, who went from bashing the mobster at every opportunity he could to sympathising and even collaborating with Tony having been reassigned to investigating terrorist activity.

The Sopranos was one of the shows that changed the landscape of television forever, leading us to today’s box set generation. HBO, the channel that aired the show, began showing films and sporting events but eventually branched out into television shows. For David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, the network was a godsend as it allowed him full creative control over the show and gave him a chance when perhaps others wouldn’t. The results were impressive, as the show regularly drew in 20million viewers and far-reaching critical acclaim.

The ninth episode of the first season, titled Boca, focuses primarily on two main stories. Tony’s Uncle Junior, the incumbent head of the family, travels to Boca Raton on Florida with his girlfriend, who later confesses in a hair salon that Junior is partial to performing oral sex. Word inevitably gets back to Tony who makes fun of Junior, an incident which only heightens the static between uncle and nephew, exacerbating the simmering bad blood between the two.

The other thread of the episode centres on football, or soccer. Tony’s teenage daughter, Meadow, finds herself starring for the school soccer team which is guided by sought-after coach Don Hauser, played by Kevin O’Rourke. Tony, along with consigliere Silvio Dante and childhood friend Artie Bucco, who also have daughters on the team, take a keen interest. Hauser’s no-nonsense approach and success with the girl’s team eventually lands him a lucrative and career-enhancing job offer from the University of Rhode Island.

The doting fathers suddenly put their mafia caps on, and begin intimidating Coach Hauser in order to force him to stay. Firstly, Paulie Gaultieri turns up at the coach’s house with a 50-inch screen television as a gift, which is refused but left on his drive nonetheless. Later, Chris Moltisanti kidnaps the Hauser family dog and then presents it as if it had escaped and been found by a concerned passer-by. The implication was that if a dog can go missing with such ease, so can a person, a threat that didn’t seem to go unnoticed by the coach.

The dark side of the story is revealed when, upon hearing of the coach’s’ impending departure, star player Ally Vandermeed attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. It transpires that Coach Hauser and the underage girl were having an affair, news that Meadow let slip to her parents in the Soprano kitchen. Tony’s fear is that this could have been his daughter being manipulated by an older man in a position of authority, and attempting suicide. This presents viewers with a moral conundrum: what would we do if we were in Tony’s shoes? Would we become violent or find a more civilised and legal way of dealing with the problem?

Tony’s usual inclination in a situation like this would’ve been to have the coach murdered, but he is persuaded by his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi and Artie Bucco – chef and civilian – to seek a more legal means of justice. The coach is later arrested for his transgression and Tony later feels relieved to have made the right decision for once. He returns to the family home, intoxicated by a mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs, proudly declaring: “I didn’t hurt nobody”.

The use of soccer in this particular episode acts as a microcosm of Tony’s character and the overall premise of the show, as he battles simultaneously with trying to be a caring father whilst using his power in an attempt to exert influence. However, it was – in the grand scheme of the show – one of the weakest episodes and storylines. It was a clumsy metaphor of Tony’s two lives and felt particularly forced, and there were countless other stronger examples of this throughout the show’s run.

Most TV shows, and characters within them, have an arc which exists either in an individual season, throughout the show’s whole run, or both. The Don Hauser storyline in particular was one of the least enjoyable because it didn’t seem to affect what happened before or after and therefore was a bit throwaway. Silvio’s and Artie’s daughters weren’t alluded to once after this particular episode despite their fathers being recurring characters, further proof that it was somewhat shoe-horned in as filler. The storyline also showed a sudden obsession with the girls’ football team, which wasn’t mentioned before or after.

The use of soccer, however, was interesting given the timing. The episode originally aired on March 7th 1999, with the mid to late 1990s being somewhat a colourful period for soccer in the States. The country was awarded the 1994 World Cup by FIFA in 1988, despite uniquely not having a national domestic league. The hosts reached the last 16, losing out to eventual winners Brazil, but the tournament was a roaring success drawing in just shy of 70,000 fans per game. Two years after the World Cup, the national league would come to fruition, with Major League Soccer (MLS) debuting in 1996.

A few months after the show aired, the United States hosted the Women’s World Cup, retaining the trophy they’d previously won in 1991, solidifying their place at the top of the female international game. As a direct result of the success of the national team, popularity for the women’s game grew exponentially and two years later, in April 2001, the ladies had a professional league to call their own. However, the Women’s United Soccer Association would be short lived, folding just two years later due to crippling debts.

There is no doubt that today soccer in the United States is on the rise, despite the competition from the major four traditional sports: American football, ice hockey, basketball, and baseball. The national team are currently ranked 35th by FIFA, their lowest since the rankings were created in 1993, yet MLS is improving. Across the board, average attendance has risen in seven of the last ten seasons, with the 2016 average of 21,692 comfortable ahead of the debut season’s 17,406. The original roster has more than doubled from ten teams to the 22 in the current format, with the addition of more “franchises” expected every season.

Almost 20 years have passed since The Sopranos debuted, and it is still revered as one of the greatest shows of all time. The mafia still exists, although it isn’t what it was, and thanks to the trail blazed by The Sopranos and HBO, television box sets are going from strength-to-strength with the likes of Netflix leading the charge. Despite a fallow period for the men’s national team, soccer in the States is on the rise with an ever-improving MLS. Annual summer tours by the world’s biggest clubs show that there is a market out there for the sport and whilst it may not overtake the big four traditional sports, it does have a space in American society.

FOLLOW DAN ON TWITTER @winkveron

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