An American soccer historian, honored and remembered

The example of Dave Wangerin — an American Midwesterner who moved to the United Kingdom to get his soccer fix — continues the spirit of When Saturday Comes.

Wangerin, who died at the age of 50 last summer, was given space in the iconoclastic British soccer “webzine” to ramble on about American soccer history, an obscure segment of a sport that has labored in obscurity on these shores for most of its history.

The American game has been derided even worse on the British Isles, especially our when it comes to our use of the word “soccer” over their “football.” But that’s another subject.

soccer-in-a-football-world-the-story-of-americas-forgotten-game-david-wangerinWangerin, who eventually settled in Scotland, didn’t care about nomenclature. His 2006 book, “Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game,” was published as a broader sporting public in America was starting to take note of its present, thanks to wider availability on television that yielded greater mainstream media attention.

To honor Wangerin’s memory, as well as his devotion to the story of the game in the United States, the editors of WSC have created an annual writers competition, open to “those who don’t make their living from writing.”

(The deadline to submit an entry is May 31, and the winner gets a cash prize of £250 and his/her article published in the magazine. Here’s one of the candidates for the first contest.)

That WSC should do this for an American writer who preferred to write about the lost history of the game in his native land speaks to the expansive embrace of a publication that seems as novel now as it did when it first hit the stands in 1986. It was a smart fans’ perspective on the world of English soccer as it transitioned from a being a haven for blatant fan violence to a sport gobbled up through immense, and rapid, corporatization.

Before the the infamy of the Hillsborough and Heysel tragedies had truly sunk in, the audacious creation of the lucrative Premier League enabled some fans to forget, or just to move on with new celebrity footballers to cheer or mock. But the magazine, still edited by co-founder Andy Lyons, hasn’t hewed to any new fashion or sentiment in all that time.

As occasional WSC contributor Barney Ronay wrote to mark the magazine’s 25th anniversary:

“Its longevity is perhaps grounded in the unwavering refusal of its editorial staff to bend with fashion, agree to go on TV, pop up as a talking head in a year-end countdown clip-show, cash in with a series of annoying and hastily scrawled books, or basically extend far beyond their own pages.”

And this:

“It is, though, still perhaps easier to praise WSC by saying what it isn’t. This is the only place where you will find no sponsor-driven interviews with a captive star; no celebrity-driven features, of the Top-10-favourite-player-mucus-expectorating-incidents; no forced gaiety or feigned interest in the passing clouds of the day; and best of all, no barriers.”

For an American who came to soccer in the years following the World Cup in the U.S. in 1994, the tone and approach of WSC was as surprising to me as it was refreshing. Before the slick likes of FourFourTwo came along, WSC possessed — and still possesses — more than a voice, or a point of view: It possesses an honesty that’s rooted in a keen understanding of what a game means to people on more than a consumer level. (Which is why I found it ironic that I could occasionally buy a copy at my suburban Barnes and Noble. After the international mailing costs for a subscription became prohibitive, I was glad to see it on a nearby newsstand.)

WSC was the perfect creative place for Wangerin to flesh out his history of American soccer. His book is straightforward and clear-eyed, never cynical but also not overly celebratory. After all, this is a sport that had few notable “victories” — on and off the field — until the World Cup came here (bearing the chapter title “Revenge of the Commie Pansies.”). But even in the wake of that event, and the forthcoming launch of Major League Soccer, Wangerin exemplified the caution of an historian well-versed in his subject. WSC Book

The post-World Cup enthusiasm that created some of the first American fanzines and blogs at the dawn of the Internet age was tempered by this sobering reality:

“MLS sensed the opportunity to appeal to the fan as a consumer. In fact, ‘MLS Unveiled,’ as the event was christened, struck many as an outright capitulation to the creative excess of designers, with no one on the soccer side brave enough to channel their creative juices.”

If WSC has remained resolute in its approach, so did Wangerin. While he ended the book concluding that “there has never been a better time for soccer in a football world,” he also remained concerned about how its past was being preserved. In what turned out to be final article of his life, Wangerin sent a rough draft to the then-new Howler Magazine last spring, fretful what the warehousing of artifacts from the closed U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame reflected about the stewardship of the game’s history.

Published posthumously, “Homeless at 100” captured the essence of a writer who was unrelenting in his insistence that the story of American soccer be unfurled in full, and not, as many like to trace, with the triumph of playing host to the World Cup:

“One suspects that this, 1994, is the year the federation would doubtless prefer as its starting point: the birth of American soccer as a multi-million dollar enterprise, something to sink marketing teeth into. To say that, from that moment, it has never looked back may reek of cliche . . . Still, as Cicero wrote, not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child—and for all the progress professional soccer has made in America, it is still in the first flush of youth.”

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