BY PAUL McPARLAN – @pmaccap
Soccer travels is another offering by the increasing number of authors who are taking to self-publishing to make their work available to a wider audience. I always look to support and encourage such new writers and I am aware that they, perhaps, cannot be judged by the same standards as professional sports writers. Drew Farmer, as the Soccer in the title probably indicates, is an American journalist and former teacher who now resides in England. His travelogue involves journeys to watch football (not soccer!) across three different continents, watching clubs as diverse as FC United, FC Seoul, AC Milan and Honved.
Drew offers a number of new and varying insights on the game due to his background. Having grown up in Springfield, Missouri he is not blinkered by having lived in a culture with a rich and long footballing tradition. In some ways he represents the new global fan, the type adored by the producers at Sky TV and Peter Scudamore of the Premier League. His passion for football started off with watching the extensive football coverage which has been available on American television since the turn of the century and with playing FIFA computer games, much to the chagrin of his non-plussed parents who cannot understand why he has not fallen in love with NFL or baseball. Therefore, given such a background, it is not surprising that he picks Liverpool as his team, although he has only actually attended one of their games.
Drew offers his thoughts on visits to 13 different football matches, although he spends more time in some countries than others due to the nature of his various employments. In these chapters he is able to develop more thoroughly what role the football experience has in the culture and to develop a deeper understanding of how it impacts on the daily lives of the population. Pleasingly, he also manages to visit a Women’s Premier League football game in Manchester. As a reader, certain chapters will attract you straight away and this is a book that you would definitely read at many different sittings rather than in one attempt.
There are many positive aspects to this travelogue. Drew, having grown up in a non- traditional football background, is able to offer a certain number of new insights and perspectives about the game which perhaps many of us take for granted. He often refers to the number of football league clubs that are in such close proximity to his current base in Manchester with a sense of awe and bewilderment. However, at times, there are several examples of failing to understand fully what it means to support your local club, especially at non–league level.
I enjoyed the opening chapter about his visit to watch his ‘local’ team, Kansas City Chiefs, in 2007 who play 300 miles away from his home base in Springfield, Missouri. The description of the growing new phenomenon of the Soccer Moms and their lack of understanding of what it means to support a team drove him to despair at times. Other aspects, such as the impossibility of reaching this out of town stadium by public transport and the ritual of the pre-game picnics in the car park, I had not considered before. I had not realised that in the early days of the NASL, such innovations as banning back passes and allowing three substitutions were being implemented long before FIFA thought of them.
In a later chapter he returns to watch the team again, only this time they have been renamed Sporting Kansas City and now play in a new stadium that is actually in Kansas. It is worth reading this chapter to fully understand how the experience of watching professional football has changed, seemingly for the better.
In each of the chapters, Drew tries to depict his experience of attending the match, by describing the culture of each of the cities and countries he visits and the differing routines involved in attending and participating in each game. During his visit to Italy, he gives an excellent description of the culture of the Ultras and the role they play in supporting their clubs, even to the extent of being able to sell tickets to their friends and their own merchandise inside the stadia. The chaos that surrounds his attempts to see Qatar play Brazil in a friendly and his concern for the lamentable working conditions suffered by immigrant workers should concern anybody who intends to attend the World Cup being held there in 2022. When working in Hungary, he is advised against attending any matches involving Ferencvaros by his colleagues. Although sceptical at first, he soon comes to realise that this is advice well heeded. However, his visit to Honved shows that a club with a rich history experiencing hard times can still attract a core support of families to its games, even if the club shop is closed on match days.
I always welcome an outsider’s view of attending football matches in England. For a fan growing up in the USA, Drew always dreamed of watching a game in England. He chooses a mixture of English teams to watch, ranging from Liverpool – his team – to Walsall and FC United. I was intrigued to note that despite this being his first ever Liverpool game, he left before the end of the match. He makes the valid point, when visiting Walsall, that the cost of watching games outside of the Premier League is still relatively expensive, especially when considering the facilities and entertainment on offer, although he does enjoy the proximity to the action that this level of football offers. However, his description of the area surrounding the Bescot Stadium reminding him of an episode of “The Wire” ensures he will not be working for the West Midlands tourist board anytime in the near future.
In particular, during his visit to watch FC United, although he rightly focuses on the community spirit that supporters of FC United have developed, he struggles to grasp the concept that many of the fan base can support both Manchester United and FC United at the same time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of supporting a non-league team, saying at one stage “I don’t think I could do that”.
What I did like was that he portrays the fact that despite what Sky would have us believe not every football game is a goal fest. He witnesses goalless draws at Wolverhampton, Kansas City and Walsall and two of the matches he tries to attend are postponed. In Qatar, he has to admit defeat when traffic congestion meant that he arrived at the stadium just as the second half was about to start. The problems of travelling to a match are a fascinating component of this travelogue.
The difficulty with self-publishing a book of this type is that the lack of a decent proof reader can create an unfavourable impression. Legendary Hungarian player, Ferenc Puskas is referred to as Fenrenc in the introduction. Later on he writes about his visit to An_field, an unfortunate mistake from a lifelong Red. Perhaps, a friend could just have a cursory glance at the content before going to publish.
There are a number of stereotypes that he highlights. During his time in England, his view is often that the skies are grey and that it rains constantly. He also finds that the combination of alcohol and football supporters never goes well. The areas around football grounds of many clubs often appear to make him feel less than comfortable. Then again, if you are attending games for the first time this may be excellent advice.
This book is not for the “know-it-all” football historian. Certainly, there are certain chapters that would benefit from further development and analysis. However, for anyone new to the joys of watching the game or who has grown up away from the UK and Europe, playing FIFA and watching the Premier League and other major European leagues on TV, this travelogue offers a welcome introduction to the culture of watching football across the world.
You can buy Soccer Travels: One man. One journal. One beautiful game by Drew Farmer from Amazon HERE