You can only really love one club. Sure, you can appreciate many, have affection for a handful, understand several deeply, and even root heartily and honestly for a few. But you can only truly love one.
Association football tests this theory. There are so many registered clubs – at multiple levels across hundreds of countries, you’re talking about thousands – that you’re bound to be pulled in more than one direction sometimes. Your hometown club. Your local XI. The big club you’ve always felt something for. Your dad’s team. The club you followed a favorite player to and stuck with. The exotic foreign club you started paying a little too much attention to. That one beautiful jersey you had to have (and couldn’t rightly wear without a little proper background knowledge). Your go-to club on FIFA for XBox.
It’s even more complicated for us American fans. Most of us grew up without local sides, those community-oriented clubs that get passed down through families around much of the world. Even once M.L.S. began, there continued to be an aura of franchise-y plastic wrap about American teams themselves, and though many of us have become fans, familial bonds weren’t common right out of the gate. American soccer fans have spent much of recent history looking, it seems, for something to latch on to.
What we State-side soccer fans have always lacked in authentic outlets, though, we’ve made up for in resourcefulness. We watched faraway games in strange languages on obscure cable TV channels and pirated internet feeds. We studied the complex histories and structures of the global game, learned the songs and the symbolism, and devoured soccer culture in almost every form, almost like it was takeout food. (“Hungry for Mexican?” “I just had that last week – let’s try this new German place I’ve been hearing about.”) We found connections – in our neighborhoods, our favorite players, our family histories. Along the way, we developed real bonds that stretched across the globe.
Meanwhile, M.L.S. has started to feel a little more authentic with every passing year – it’s become a viable outlet for passionate support and even love. And each World Cup that the U.S. participates in brings waves of new fans to the table, hoping to find something – anything – to give them that same amazing football feeling the Cup inevitably conjures. When that moment arises in every emerging fan’s life – the moment they realize they love soccer – most fans around the world know exactly where to direct that love. Americans, as we often are, are awkwardly spoiled for choice.
So it all ends up that there are a few clubs on every soccer fan’s radar. Personally? Well, I could name a handful in England alone. I’ve always had a soft spot for Newcastle, for instance – mostly due to Alan Shearer who seemed grittily relatable when I was learning to love the game. Arsenal, too – I find myself ever-so-slightly pulling for them when they’re on; rooting for them just feels so – what’s the word? – aerodynamic? I guess now that my Red Sox share ownership with Liverpool, I’m sort of invested in how they do (though I wouldn’t call myself anywhere near a supporter). Fulham also means something to American fans like me – though less now than it once did. I watch what German club FC Kaiserslautern is up to after visiting that town, and singing in their stadium, during the 2006 World Cup, and South African side Bidvest Wits after 2010. I already have a Brazillian team – Botafogo – who I obsess about a little bit (they’re just way too exotic and cool). I keep an eye on how my “local” club, the New England Revolution, are doing (though I don’t quite deem them worthy of passionate support just yet), and for family reasons, the Philadelphia Union, too.
These blips on my football radar ping at various strengths and frequencies throughout the year; they make following soccer fun. But I adhere to the golden rule. I have only one true soccer love. It’s the club I’ll pass down to my kids, and the pilgrimage I’ll make them take when they’re old enough. It’s the colors that make my blood boil, and the team I grind my teeth over. It’s Brighton & Hove Albion. If those others are blips, Brighton is a homing beacon.
I wasn’t much of a football fan yet when I arrived to live in Brighton as a student in the late 90s. (To be fair, they weren’t much of a football club at that point either.) By the time I’d left England, I was sure I loved the city of Brighton, I think I suspected I loved football, and I knew I’d always follow the Albion. I’ve been a supporter from afar in the years since, watching them move up and down (and up and down) the English pyramid. The club didn’t even play in the city when I lived there; their historic home had been bulldozed for a shopping center by then, and they were playing miles away at another team’s ground, buried several leagues and hundreds of clubs below the top. Today they’re the proud owners of the best new stadium in the country, steps from where I once lived and studied. And this season concludes, they’re poised to do something incredible: join the English Premier League.
It’s no sure thing, of course, but they’ve never been this close before. Brighton’s most recent top-flight history (and there isn’t an overwhelming amount of it) predates the Premier League by a decade. Today, the Albion sit fourth in the Championship table with just a few games left to play. They won’t win it (congrats to Cardiff), but they can, should, must! finish in the top six and compete for a promotion spot via the Championship’s playoff system. They would, in fact, face their arch-rivals Crystal Palace in those playoffs if things stay as they are today – and beating Palace en route to a Premiere League promotion would no doubt be considered an “I can die in peace” moment for many Albion fans.
I’m not waiting for all that to happen; I need to get this out into the world right now: I love Brighton. I have faith that they’ll be in the top flight soon – if not this year, than the next, or the next. The club plays beautiful, inspiring football – their charismatic Uruguayan manager makes sure that it doesn’t look too English – and more importantly they have a positive, heady aura that isn’t going away any time soon. Does it hurt that their historic blue and white uniforms, their stadium, the city, and the region are just as beautiful as the on-field product? Not in the slightest.
So as the season runs to its inevitable conclusion, I say this: if you’re like me, and you keep track of a few clubs at once, consider making Brighton & Hove Albion one of the blips on your radar. As they move ever-closer to the big time, you’ll appreciate it. And if you do, look out – they’re the kind of club that will grow on you. Here’s hoping that, when the promotion playoffs start in a few weeks, they’ll have a few matches to play down in good old Sussex by the Sea.
To celebrate Brighton, I’ve just added a new BTN t-shirt in my Town T series. In signature blue and white, it’s ready for the playoff push and, after that, who knows? If you’d like one, you can get it here.