The Blank Soccer JerseySupporting the team, not the player
by Abram Chamberlain | Monday, July 09, 2012
Before writing about soccer, I almost exclusively covered basketball. Oft times, my analysis of the two will overlap. This is due to the time I spent writing, playing and coaching both soccer and basketball to varying degrees of success. Recently, an old basketball cliché has surfaced in a way that seems more fitting for soccer.
While working as an assistant with a basketball team, I had the experience of working with a wonderful coach who taught me more about managing players than anyone I have coached with before or since. For this team, due to budget constraints, the players had to purchase their own uniforms. One day, one of the players asked the coach if he was allowed to put his name on the back of the jersey, she – did I mention this was a woman’s coach who was coaching a boys team? – told him no. When he asked why, she quite simply replied, “Because you play for the name on the front, the name on the back doesn’t even matter.”
When soccer season began the fall of the following year, I took that notion and applied it to the soccer team as well. So while our soccer and basketball teams were out there competing with teams whose jerseys had names like “Jewlz”, “Dime Droppa”, “Threat” as well as your typical “Johnson”, “Smith” and “Jones”, all our players had was the name of the school on the front.
It’s interesting that the first time I heard this cliché it was spouted by a basketball coach. The fact is, much more than soccer or really any other team sport, basketball is about the individual. A great player can lead his or her team to championships. Sure, it’s easier with a group of stars or really good role players, but a single great player can do it alone. However, this is hardly the case in soccer.
I’m sure most people will point to Diego Maradona’s 1986 World Cup winning Argentine side and believe that he alone led the Argentines to that victory; but, a closer look at the side will allow you to see that even the great Diego was a gear, albeit one of the greatest gears ever, in a system. Players are all gears and – as another idiom goes – the individual is only as good as the parts that surround it. One superstar is fine, but it takes ten, eleven, twelve or even thirteen or fourteen working cogs to really win in soccer. Conversely, over the years I’ve spent coaching, I’ve always found that in basketball if I have two good players (preferably a big man and a wing player) I can do well. In soccer, good players are nice, but if I have average or even poor players who play in a system I can do better, but I digress.
The fact is there might be no sport that is more of a team sport than soccer. It is very rare that a soccer player is so good that he or she can clear the line, get the ball, dribble the length of the pitch and then score on a regular basis.
Yes, there are soccer superstars. Yes, as fans, we track individual players; in MLS I’m a huge fan of Alvaro Saborio, like everyone else I marvel at Lionel Messi, Andrea Pirlo’s performance at the Euros made me realize I should have been following him more closely for years and I have a guilty pleasure for Chicharito. But I don’t support their teams; I am a fan of those players despite their teams. I’ll watch them, but I’m not cheering for RSL, Barca, Juve or Man United.
With that in mind, I am a soccer jersey connoisseur. A kit nerd if you will. I’m sure I own dozens if not hundreds (boy does my wife wish that were an exaggeration) of soccer jerseys, but none of them have a player’s name on the back. I enjoy the exploits of individuals, but I support the team first.
Maybe it is solely an MLS thing. It drives me nuts to see people sitting at New York Red Bulls games wearing old Thierry Henry Arsenal jerseys. Those people are typically Henry fans who are there to support their player not the team on the pitch. But it is not just the superstars. Last year I was foolishly in love with the passion of Rajko Lekic. I thought very long and hard about buying a Lekic jersey; however, he is now gone from my team. As I peer around the Fort in Gillette Stadium and see the numerous Lekic and Milton Caraglio jerseys it makes me think of a bad year, players who didn’t work out and signing mistakes that the backs of those jerseys represent more than what should matter: The front.
In this sport, players are bought and sold – or in MLS’s case traded – around the world. They are sold to rivals. Club legends may become club enemies. How embarrassing would it be to a Manchester United supporter wearing a Carlos Tevez jersey to the Manchester derby? I wouldn’t be able to show my face.
The other reason why I keep my soccer jerseys nameless is that in soccer, it is all about the team. The best teams are units and they players its cogs. As great as Messi is for Barcelona, he is still just part of the Barca machine. People point out how comparatively he is not as great for country as he is for club, and that is because Argentina does not have the pieces to work the system that Barcelona does. The same could be said for hundreds of players on different teams worldwide.
So my jersey backs remain empty. I support the team. I love the players, but it is the team I’m bleeding for. I don’t bleed for Joey Barton – I and a good portion of soccer fans that know him, quite despise him – I bleed for QPR. I don’t breathe my air for Rajko Lekic I do it for New England. My life doesn’t stop and end with Daniele De Rossi on the pitch; it does it with AS Roma.
Yes, the players are important as they are what make up the team, but it is the team I live for. Meanwhile in the NBA, I would not buy a blank jersey. I know that it is the individual that makes the team. Sure the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz teams of the 90s were more soccer-like in their team first building, but the truth is basketball is more about the player than the team.
And that is what works for basketball. That is why since David Stern took over as NBA commissioner his marquees are filled with the names of individual players, not teams. It is also what MLS is doing. Don Garber is stuck promoting players over club. It is not New York Red Bulls taking on DC United for the Eastern Conference it is Thierry Henry taking on Dwayne De Rosario. We see the preferential treatment handed out in David Beckham’s joke of a one game suspension (yes he’s off for two games, but one is for card accumulation), because the league believes fans in other markets show up for Golden Balls not for the LA Galaxy. And truthfully they are probably right.
The marketing-centric push of players by MLS, especially in a league that thrives itself on parity and salary restrictions, is a bit silly. Especially when there are teams, like Real Salt Lake that play like a cohesive unit. The truth of the matter is if you took several RSL players and moved them to different teams they may not be as good as they are in Jason Kreis’ system. We hear ad nauseum that for RSL “the team is the star.” Yes many RSL players are better than your average MLS schlub, but it is the whole that is making the parts rise above the masses into something special. But that is how it is supposed to be everywhere. It’s tough; actually with the limitations in place it is impossible, for MLS teams to build teams with the top players in the world.
Ironically, in a league based around parity it should be marketing a team’s style or a team itself over individuals. The narrative should be about how the local team’s players unite to be better than the sum of their parts. This is another reason why I continue to wear a blank jersey, especially in MLS. It should be about the badge on the front, not the Designated Player on the back. RSL’s team first mentality is a formula that is now being copied by other league clubs, but regrettably ignored by MLS’s marketing. Because the truth is it’s easier to sell the player, as the NBA has done for years, than it is to try to sell “good soccer.” It’s easier to sell an Alessandro Nesta jersey than a Montreal Impact one.
Strangely, despite what I’ve just written, if Clint Dempsey goes to Arsenal, I’m going to probably have to buy a Dempsey jersey, because in that situation I’ll be supporting the player not the club. Such is the duality of the soccer supporter. But for the most part, my jersey will remain a blank New England Revolution, a blank AS Roma, a blank QPR, a blank whichever team I choose to support jersey, because I am supporting the team on the front, not the player on the back.