BY MARK GODFREY
Ever wish you’d chronicled your life as football fan, from that very first enlightening moment to whatever stage of infatuation, loathing or ambivalence you’re at now? Well, Michael Agovino has sort of done that – only in retrospect.
The Soccer Diaries reads exactly as you’d expect given its title; it’s a journal – of sorts – taking us through his life as a soccer fan. In all probability, Agovino should never have written this book at all. Not because of a lack of quality, but because his background weighed heavily against him even knowing what soccer was.
To experience a soccer ‘awakening’ in your early teens in one of New York’s toughest and most infamous areas – the Bronx, home of the great baseball club the New York Yankees – would have been a rare occurrence, but to have that epiphany during the early 1980s during the death throes of the old NASL and a dearth of soccer coverage in the media stands as testament to just how hard the author fell in love with the rest of the world’s favourite sport.
Those formative years are covered richly in the first of three distinct time periods covered in the book. Interspersed between stories of Bronx life of the time with all its social depravation, crime, drugs and menace in the days before Mayor Giuliani cleaned up the city’s act, we learn about a young man’s insatiable thirst for soccer – and world – knowledge; Agovino’s love for absorbing soccer facts going hand-in-hand with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his atlas. Perhaps these aren’t just the memoirs of a sports nut, but someone who, from an early age, craved escape from his present and his likely future.
Through worn out VHS tapes, grainy Spanish cable TV and soccer magazines gleaned from all manner of off-the-beaten-track sources, we move through Michael’s hoovering up of the 1982 World Cup, European and South American soccer of the 80s and occasional visits to Cosmos games and friendlies at Giants Stadium – trekking via the Port Authority a recurring thread.
As a boy, with very few people in his life – or in the US as a whole most likely – able to validate and accompany him on his soccer-loving journey (something that we here in Europe are never in danger of) you get the impression of someone who was desperate to be different; a European football nerd rather than the stereotypical foam-hand-waving, tailgate party-loving US style fan we’ve come to see as symbolising sports ‘consumption’ in America.
Through the middle section of the book – which for me tends to wander away a bit too often, but then this is Michael’s diary, not my own – we experience Michael’s college and early working years as he tries to maintain the balance of being a dedicated, extremely knowledgeable fan while struggling to break into sports journalism. Often his fascination with the European game – and certainly the literary depiction of it – extends a bit too often to the hooligan/ultra element rather than the sporting nuances. However, Agovino is not just a fan of the game – he understands and ably demonstrates an in depth interest in the historic, social and economic issues that orbit the sport.
There are a few displays of naivety in his opinion perhaps – a throwaway comparison between Saeed Al-Owairan and Diego Maradona struck me most while a repeated, sometimes-scathing critique of Zinedine Zidane goes totally against my own valuation of one of the greats of the game – but as they say, “opinions are like arseholes – everybody has one”, and if we didn’t, soccer wouldn’t have anywhere near the power to attract and repel as it does. Occasionally, we see plenty of eulogising about the great players of the time, but very little of the recognition of the mediocre or the downright terrible – all of which we have witnessed for ourselves and it would have been nice to hear his skilfully composed take on them too.
We learn a bit more about Michael himself in this middle section; his interest in travel, literature and cinema shine through as his journalism career begins to form.
Up to that point, I sporadically found it difficult to relate to Agovino despite a shared love of football and a similar character in terms of the way we developed our obsession with the game in our younger days. However, the later section from the early 2000s to the present made me warm more to him as I found it much easier to recognise a kindred spirit; someone whose experiences of travel, football and life resembled my own and for that reason, this part of the book I found to be the most enjoyable. I was therefore disappointed when it came to an end just as this slow burner began to take light.
This book translates well wherever you may be, but supporters from the USA will really enjoy this book – especially the early stages. Those who lived through this barren times for the game in America during the 80s will see a lot of themselves in this diary, while for the new fans of the MLS era, this will be an eye opener on how things used to be.
YOU CAN FOLLOW MICHAEL ON TWITTER @soccerdiarist