Heads-up take on `sport that ate suburbia'

Review Sports

June 11, 2006|By CHRISTIAN FLOW | CHRISTIAN FLOW,SUN REPORTER

Soccerhead: An Accidental Journey Into the Heart of the American Game

Jim Haner

North Point Press / 288 pages / $24

If you've spent some time around the game, you're probably familiar with the sorts of extremes that characterize modern American soccer fandom.

On the one hand, there are the pretenders and the hangers-on: baby-boomers and their offspring who, having failed on gridiron and diamond, gravitate to the sport in a last-ditch attempt to stir the dying embers of athletic proficiency.

In another camp entirely are the rabid devotees, the lifers: the middle-class parents distinguished by their desire to tug replica jerseys and polyester warmup pants over their spreading frames, to pay exorbitant fees for satellite footage of European games, to travel to weekend coaching seminars, and to track their children into elite club programs.

It's this latter group, resplendent in their Adidas pullovers and Nike flip-flops, that captivate former Sun metro reporter Jim Haner and grace the title page of his recent book. It's these people who one might call "soccerheads."

They are not alone, these soccerheads. If there's one thing that Haner reveals about the "sport that ate suburbia," it's that the American game has a deep-running historical heritage, a hidden dimension involving legions of past soccerheads whose legacy gets lost in the conventional perception that American soccer began with the arrival of PelM-i and the importation of the international game in the early 1970s. Theirs was an early- to mid-20th-century gladiatorial spectacle in which the ball was not a padded latex bladder but a concussion-inducing rawhide cannonball, the fields were not grassy suburban pitches but beaten cinder lots, and the games were not so much athletic contests as wars for the settlement of ethnic tensions.

Haner ensures that these lost generations are accorded some of their deserved glory in a nicely blended historical account that runs from soccer's arrival on the American docks, to its mid-20th-century decline (partly ascribed to the lobbying of baseball executives), and finally to its emphatic resurgence, which culminated in the storied, sports bra-baring 1999 women's World Cup final. Dealt with along the way are such curiosities as the invention of the acrobatic "bicycle kick" maneuver (by Ramon Unzaga in the 1920s), the career of the "Babe Ruth of American Soccer" (a well-proportioned wizard by the name of Billy Gonsalves), and a 1950 matchup in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, that saw an overmatched group of U.S. part-timers defeat the vaunted British national team.

Making all this history more accessible is the fact that the author only recently learned it for the first time. A middle-aged father with no more knowledge of the game than much of the rest of his football- and baseball- weaned generation, Haner reports to a youth-league signup at his wife's behest, only to leave with a bag of balls and a full complement of unsought coaching responsibilities. From there, Soccerhead is as much a story of a beleaguered suburbanite's attempts to come to terms with coaching an unfamiliar game as it is an account of the game itself. Material from Haner's historical research and numerous interviews with former greats is interspersed with the recounting of his first three years at the helm of the College Park Hornets.

That the final product is a fun read is hardly debatable. Haner is by turns lovable in his penchant for obscurity (he quotes everyone from Chaucer to Aristophanes to Sun Tzu), informed in his irreverence (football is denounced as "a bastardized variant of British rugby based on archaic Franco-German military principles") and creative in his jabs (George Will's "romantic musings on the ecstasies of baseball" win him a designation as "a latter-day Byron of the stick-and-pebble game"). His accounts of the youthful Hornets' games are enthusiastic and lively - the latter perhaps even too much so, as a team of 7-year-olds occasionally turns in what sounds suspiciously like a professional-grade performance.

Above all, however, there can be no doubting the author's earnestness. Haner's work is replete with innocent affection for the sport that gradually consumes him. And for a true soccerhead, that will be more than enough.

Christian Flow, a former intern in The Sun's sports department, is a graduating senior at the Gilman School.

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