When Michael Clarkson moved to the U.S. from his native England in 1996, he brought with him his love of a game he calls football. We call it soccer.
Clarkson, 47, lives in Elizabeth City with his wife Joey, their daughter Sophie and son Finn. He is a machinist working in Norfolk by day, and by evening he plays wingman in a community soccer league. When the World Cup came around as it does every four years, Clarkson was on the ball, watching as many matches as possible, right down to last Sunday’s final match between Germany and Argentina – Germany, in case you’re not in the know, took the championship.
This time around Clarkson had no difficulty watching the World Cup. But in years past, it could be difficult for the diehard fan of the game to catch the matches on television, mostly because America hasn’t been as enthused about it in the past, as it is today. Clarkson has been known to set his clock to the wee hours of the morning to catch a match on television.
Although the game we call soccer has many historical roots in cultures around the world, the game we know today is a result of England’s love of the sport. It was in England that the game was played, and the rules would be shaped for the future of the world’s most popular sport.
We sat down with Clarkson, a skilled athlete who used to play semi-pro soccer, to talk about soccer and its future in America, from a Brit’s point of view.
The Daily Advance: When you first came to the U.S., were you surprised to find out that soccer was not a popular spectator sport?
Michael Clarkson: No. Because I knew American teams in the MLS (Major League Soccer) were just about to get going — just starting. Good players that got too old in the tooth used to come to America to play for the money. Which is still happening today.
TDA: You have played semi-pro soccer, as well community league soccer. Describe what you like about the game and why.
MC: I’ve loved the game since I was able to walk. Played through school teams and Saturday and Sunday morning leagues. But basically it was instilled in us from a very early age. I just enjoyed the competition, the skill level.
TDA: You currently play on an adult league here in Elizabeth City, and your children play soccer as well. Do you believe that one day the game will find the same sort of following as American sports such as American football, basketball and baseball?
MC: That is a good question. I think eventually it will, but I think it will be a fair time before it does. For the simple reason it doesn’t get the same play on TV as other sports. But I have to say since 1996 it has come a long way.
TDA: It seems that each time the World Cup comes around there are more American soccer fans. What do you think Americans can do to increase the popularity of the sport between World Cups?
MC: I think it is actually a whole mindset. I don’t think your are going to increase the mindset until people change their mindset. I have a hard time talking soccer at work, specifically with the older workers. ... So it’s easier to talk soccer with the younger people.
TDA: You told us why you like playing the game. Why do you think soccer makes for a good spectator sport as well?
MC: Double edge thing. I think American sports are generally instant gratification sports. If you don’t score each time, American fans are disappointed. ... I like the tactical play and the forward game.
TDA: Brits known as hooligans gave the game a bad name for a while. What is it about soccer that gets fans so riled up to the point they will riot?
MC: In Britain it’s almost a religion and culture. Teams are from different areas. ... The local rivalries are a huge influence of what the fans are up to. Also, major teams have a major rivalry. This generates almost a, I wouldn’t say hatred, but a dislike of rival supporters. And when drinking is added (drinking has been banned from the stadiums) it gets real bad. Then when the National Front would get involved – they are like a neo-Nazi party – they would start fights then leave and let the fight go on.
TDA: If soccer is having a hard time catching on in the U.S., our sports don’t seem to be that popular in other parts of the world. That said, what would you say is the most popular American sport in Great Britain?
MC: American football. They started putting it on the TV over there. With the advent of satellite TV they started showing the Super Bowl and have Super Bowl parties and would have the day off the next day. ... Amateur teams started up and then the NFL Europe started up, made up of players that didn’t make it here.
TDA: If you didn’t have soccer, what sport would be your favorite and why?
MC: I love skiing and stuff like that. I also love all racquet sports like tennis and badminton. I know badminton isn’t popular here but in England it’s huge.
TDA: One American player was clocked in a match as having run the equivalent of 24 miles. What is about this game that requires such endurance?
MC: Sprinting, running, twisting, stopping. Every muscle in your body is in use. It’s a great fitness sport but you’ve got to be fit to play it.
TDA: What would you tell Americans to encourage them to support soccer?
MC: One, it’s a great team sport. I’ve enjoyed it si9nce I was three years old. I’ve made great friends.