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The Neutral Chronicles: The historical baggage that comes with choosing a team

Chelsea: Proud club, a lot of trophies, and some unsavory bits about their past.
Chelsea: Proud club, a lot of trophies, and some unsavory bits about their past.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

How does one select a soccer team to follow?

On a local level, it's often (though not always) based on what's nearby. But what about the big clubs, like those in Europe, for non-European audiences?

Sometimes family heritage, that time on study abroad, or that significant other influences your choice. Many times, it's based on who's playing on the team when you pick it, and let's be honest, how good they are. The best teams get the most attention, obviously win trophies (most of the time) and rake in supporters across the globe, though I've got a soft spot for the hipsters and underdog lovers among you.

Most Americans, at least the ones I know, don't usually do a lot of research into the negative sides to the clubs and their fans before picking a team, and most don't use political affiliations to play a role in proclaiming one's allegiances to a team (notable exception, of course, for that one guy/girl you knew in grad school who was into St. Pauli).

But in many cases, there is considerable cultural baggage that comes with any club team with a sizable history. Some of it is more reprehensible than others, but it's there, and if you're only concerned with the glitz and glamour of Champions League ties and valorizing the current superstar, it can be easy to overlook.


This all comes to mind, of course, because of the incident in Paris on Tuesday, in which Chelsea fans, in town for the first leg Champions League knockout tie against Paris St-Germain, first refused to allow a black man board the train, even pushing him out of the doorway a few times, then gleefully chanted about how racist they are. All of this was caught on video, of course, which thankfully makes it a real incident in the eyes of the world, as opposed to an anecdote from a few witnesses who can't prove it down the line.

Clearly, condemnation has been swift, and other Chelsea fans in particular have been caught in the delicate situation that they disavow those on that train in Paris while taking pains to say "real" Chelsea fans aren't racist. Obviously, not all Chelsea fans are racist...that's an absurd take for anyone, though obviously an incident or two like this will cause opposing fans to tar them with a blanket "Racists!" brush.

Turns out Chelsea have previously had a history as having far right-leaning and even neo-Nazi supporters, a problem that plagued a lot of English clubs, but one that Chelsea certainly can't ignore completely. Have things gotten better since the broad reforms in English soccer in the 1980s? From afar, it sure seems like it. Were some of those on the train in Paris part of that earlier era, or were they just a bunch of present-day racist shitheads? That's currently unknown. I imagine we'll find out more as investigations continue and those who can be identified are shamed and their stories disseminated worldwide.


The point is, American soccer fans who pick a team for "football reasons" may be missing a big element of their club's history. This phenomenon isn't really present to the same extent in American pro sports -- you may love or hate the Raiders, for example, but even the general attitudes towards fans of that team is generalized on a very different basis from, "They're fascists," or "They're racists" or "The worst among them routinely murder opposing fans." Most hatred towards American pro teams by opposing fans is on a corporatist basis ("The Lakers think they're the annoying") rather than for sociocultural or political reasons. An exception? Perhaps some colleges and universities in the south that winkingly glorify the days before their institutions were racially integrated.

I say this not to pat Americans on the back for not mixing overt politics in the same way as they do in Europe and Latin America -- there is certainly plenty of racism in American sports, too, as well as myriad other problems to contend with -- but to note that the context is considerably different between How Things Work here and abroad.

My takeaway here is that if you pick a team and don't really examine the history surrounding it, on and off the field, you may later learn of a past that you don't want to be associated with. For some folks, what's in the past is past, but if you do a tiny bit of digging and find dirt that isn't buried that deeply, you may not like the strange bedfellows you encounter as a supporter of that club. And that ought to be something at least worth considering before proclaiming your allegiance to a team halfway around the world (or any team, really).

MLS teams haven't had to grapple with this very much thus far, primarily because the league is only entering its 20th season. There are issues surrounding sexuality and homophobia on and off the field, questions about the ethics and political and financial origins of sponsors and even some club owners, but in the main it's small potatoes compared to what's happening with clubs that predate World War II, even World War I, as well as the Cold War.

And on a personal level, that's one of the reasons why I haven't picked a team abroad to root for yet. Some may be aware of the past, and shrug it off as being in the past, which in some situations is entirely reasonable. But it seems like a minefield in many respects -- not only are you likely ultimately rooting for laundry, as the old cliche goes, but also the weight of history -- good and bad alike.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!