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By Any Other Name

As the season winds down into something of a procession at the summits of the two top English leagues and another runaway success for Celtic up in Scotland I have made a conscious effort to expand my footballing horizons. This season like most promises the wonderful battle Royale of a last day multi-club relegation scrap but, before that arrives, I have been watching a little Major League Soccer. And it has been interesting.

I would grade the football as overlapping with the middle third of the Championship, quality wise, which makes it not just watchable but enjoyable yet it carries something else with it. Novelty. The first thing you have to grapple with is the language and then come the names. On that first point, I have no problem in principle calling football ‘soccer.’ I know the word’s derivation and there is nothing in it to offend me but it does just feel wrong. On that second point, the names of the sides, it took me some time to even realise that this was a bit of a problem for me.

I remember in the early 90s sitting down to watch Football Italia and revelling in the fact that I could now watch teams I only knew from big European Cup nights every week. The big sides I knew but I had never heard of Chievo-Verona or Atalanta B.C. and it was a joy to discover them. The unfamiliar names did not matter both because you had no expectation of them being in English and, at that time, Serie A was the best league in the world. Similarly, the names of American Football teams never jarred because it was a strange foreign sport with its own norms and customs that I could accept without question. You want to call your team the ‘Dolphins’ or the ‘Raiders?’ Fine. Have at it.

But it was different with football. Watching a series of city-based teams with names like the ‘Earthquakes’ or ‘Impact’ run out onto the pitch in a subtle way detracted from the seriousness of the whole business for me (there was one exception to this unfamiliar name shock - Philadelphia Union - just a cool name). And that was a shame because it made me feel like I was watching people playing at playing football rather than actually doing it. I can lay some of the blame for this at the feet of Rugby who when the Super League was formed in the UK adopted a similar naming custom which brought forth the Bradford Bulls, the Leeds Rhinos and the like. This was all following the success of the English Premier League, launching four years earlier, and felt not a little forced.

The breakthrough happened not with my continuing immersion into MLS but when I reflected of my native footballing culture. Specifically the use of nicknames, appellations we use without a second thought and some of which are so ingrained, like ‘Spurs,’ that they are semi-formal. Of course we all know The Gunners and The Potters but do you know who The Stags or The Gas are? With that in mind, San Jose Earthquakes doesn’t sound so weird. If you look at it as an attempt to reflect something not simply supplementary but unique and reaching beneath the blank city name to a quality understood by insiders and local rivals, it fulfils all the functions of a European nickname. The difference is that it has been incorporated into the club’s official identity.

It was reassuring to discover, as I read up on football over there, that Americans were not above discussing the names of their still relatively new clubs. You can find some interesting reflections here . . .

. . . on a blog called The Pride about FC Cincinnati of the United Soccer League. The self-awareness and confidence required for such debate is another sign that they are not playing. This is real football that has taken real root in the United States and I think that it will be around for a while.

Midfield General (ret.)

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