“A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer.”
A sick-at-home American wants something to read in between bouts of blowing snot projectiles.
It’s a win-win.
I’m still not sure why, after about four years of this book languishing on my shelf, I picked Chuck Culpepper’s book out of a shoebox and just started reading. It’s not a fast read, although the style is upbeat and uptempo, even jazzy in parts. It also has a sportswriter’s unique footprint – that is – juggling an astounding bulk of stats.
Waiting for the end-of-game whistle to blow can be hell. Firstly, because every second of injury time can feel like an hour and many goals are scored in injury time. Second, if one of the teams is Manchester Utd, then you probably have like half an hour of injury time because the officials like to give ManYoo time to win if they aren’t.
“Finally, one of life’s kindest acts occurred: the whistle tweeted, and Portsmouth had a 2-1 win over Liverpool to go with the 2-1 win over Newcastle, the 2-1 win over Manchester United [despite injury time – emphasis added], the 2-1 win over Manchester City, the 2-1 win over Wigan in the FA Cup, and the 2-1 win over West Ham…” (Chapter 32)
If you love soccer from way back, this book has nothing new to teach you, but you should read it anyway because you should at least be positive about converting someone to this sport. If you don’t like soccer, you still may not after this book. Even Pat Forde of ESPN (at least he was in 2007) did not jump on the soccer bandwagon. And he’s friends with Culpepper! His quote is at the top of the cover of the paperback: “I’m still not sure I love soccer, but I love this book.” What a douche! I don’t know why this struck such a sour note; probably because it’s faint praise. And everyone knows faint praise is damning. But this is conditional faint praise. Of your friend’s book. Good thing Culpepper made some new friends in England.
The writing is not super-fantastic. It’s even a bit amateurish in spots. I wonder if this is his first book-book. The back of the book has Culpepper’s pic and says that he’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize twice, has written for the LA Times and ESPN Books. (Oooooh, there’s a oxymoron!) And really, my only grouse is that Culpep makes the classic overcompensation mistake of using “myself” as a direct or indirect object instead of the correct “me”. Why was that not edited? It’s so obviously incorrect.
What’s excellent about the book is the fun. Culpepper sounds like he had a blast following Portsmouth around like a Grateful Dead-head. Many of the trips were not pleasant. The chapter 17: “The Distinct Horror of Rail Replacement”. I would have laughed more except I remembered that nightmare Thanksgiving trip from San Marcos, Texas to Laredo in ‘84 via Greyhound Bus. Three university students and about half the population of Tamaulipas (Mexico) trying to get to the border in time to enjoy Thanksgiving at home. I wish I could say that was the last time I rode “the Dog”. Culp also had to endure a few rail replacement traumas. At least he had good company, and they could all talk about soccer.
Anyhoo—more good stuff. It was nice to read that Culp endeared himself to many. He made it a point to write about all the nice people that he met, which is very cool. Also, he totally got it right in that soccer makes you afraid of numbers; specifically:4, 5, 10, 17, the amount of injury time, and whatever your team’s goal difference happens to be. For being a sports writer, Culp tells good human stories. He admits in the early chapters that he’s sick of the pretensions of American sports. So much drek. Soccer has its drek, too, as I noticed not for the first time when Muamba had a heart attack in the middle of the pitch in March. If I had a nickel for every player that tweeted “really puts things in perspective”, I could pay off my car tomorrow. I’m sure they sort of probably meant it, but really, it was just a cheap move to not be left out of the action. To paraphrase Culp: you never really leave high school.
For the benefit of American sports fans, Culp draws numerous comparisons between soccer and American sports. NFL has better locker rooms. Away fans are treated like red-headed stepchildren. College sports is filthy with corruption. Soccer is filthy with bad-tempered players and managers. College sports is crawling with exploitative businessmen who have completely forgotten that the players still have to go to class and graduate. Based on this book, I would put college recruiting practices way above even Big Oil lobbyists for venal greed. It’s a wonder recruiters are not in jail for contributing to the delinquency of minors. A funny thing to find in a book about soccer.
Some other good bits: Keeper David James is mentioned a lot because he was pretty amazing during the 06-07 season. Graham Poll is mentioned a lot towards the end of the book because he had a couple of shocking calls that went against Portsmouth. He was pilloried after giving 3 yellows during the Germany ‘06, but since ManYoo was not involved, I didn’t really care other than to feel sorry that he made a mistake in the heat of the moment. Speaking of heat of the moment, Culp rightly discerned what couple of douchebags are Joey Barton and Cristiano Ronaldo. He even figured out the Portuguese Diving Team joke about Ronaldo. Of course, there is his education about soccer in general and Pompey in particular, and his people stories are awesome – honest, a touch too self-deprecating, but never skimping on his praise for fans who stick to their teams no matter what – like the relative you can’t get rid of and who can sometimes be a bit of a screw-up but you still love them. Oh! and the best chant ever!
“You’re a town full of seamen!
You’re a town full of seamen!”