Still smiling after the 1-0 loss to Swans
Still smiling after the 1-0 loss to Swans

Introducing people you care about to your favorite team is a fraught proposition. It can be like bringing your first girlfriend home to meet your parents—ideally, she’s a Phi Beta Kappa valedictorian with an I.Q. of 132 who got a six-figure job straight out of college. Or it can be like bringing home the “dancer” you married under circumstances neither of you remember. In the latter scenario, you will be desperately extolling her virtues (“She’s . . . really flexible!”) while your family sniffs her breath and tries to ignore her neck tattoos. But there is, of course, some logical reason you were first attracted to her, even if you can’t always remember what it was.

Members of my family have, of course, known of my infatuation with a certain Aston Villa for years. To them, I’m sure it’s one of those puzzling but endearing personality traits they’ll never understand, along with my penchant for reading roadside interpretive signs in the voice of a 1940s newsreel announcer and the fact that I still listen to E.L.O. But many of them have never actually watched a game with me. This year, with my brother Sean’s family visiting from Salt Lake City for Christmas, and my mom Nancy in from Montana, things were destined to change.

Aston Villa 1 – Manchester United 1

I had originally planned to take them all to the Globe the morning after they arrived. But a delayed flight (on Frontier, whose motto should be, “You Get What You Pay for, Unless We Give You Less”) and a post-midnight arrival meant that no one jumped out of bed the next morning. One by one, my guests roused themselves to find me enjoying my morning coffee and watching TV as Villa played host to Man United. “They usually destroy us, but you never know,” I said, then watched with growing pride as Villa first scored (Christian Benteke in the 18th minute, on a beautifully worked solo strike), and then didn’t completely collapse. Yes, they gave away the lead (to Falcao in the 53rd), but who wasn’t expecting that? Given the history between the two sides, most of us were probably expecting them to give away several more goals, and maybe even the North Stand. In the end, it was a point that felt not like victory but progress.

And, for the record, that was never, ever a red card offense by Gabby. Looked like a fifty-fifty to me.

Swansea City 1 – Aston Villa 0

Even my mother and niece noted ten-man Villa’s tenacity in holding the high-priced Manchester side at bay, causing my chest to swell with pride. And when, on Christmas Day, I casually suggested that we could all enjoy a Boxing Day breakfast at the Globe before afternoon departures from O’Hare, it seemed perfectly logical that they would all be interested. Only my own sons said no—we’d been dragging them downtown all week, and besides they had new toys to play with. At kickoff, I was proudly hosting two tables of Globe first-timers: my wife Marya (at last!), my brother Sean, sister-in-law Kirstin, niece Wilhelmina, nephew Oscar, and my dear mom.

What my family saw, of course, was a team whose
collective ability to erect a wall resembled that of
the Cannabis Builders’ Union.

My own recruitment efforts will always pale in comparison to those of Chicago Lions Chairman Simon Leach, but I do consider it my duty to bring more fans into the claret-and-blue fold. And this, to me, seemed like a good game game to do it. Yes, Villa were away, but the days of home-field advantage seem a distant memory these days. And, yes, Swans came into the game in eighth place, four above twelfth-placed Villa. But, with Benteke and Delph back on the field, with Alan Hutton back at right back, with Villa playing with more and more confidence and less and less hoof-and-hope, the moment seemed ripe for a one-goal victory, the perfect bookend to a great holiday week. Even more, I hoped Villa would put on a performance that would offer a strong argument for my allegiance to the club.

However.

Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is not a dwarf from Lord of the Rings, goes over the "wall."
Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is not a dwarf from Lord of the Rings, goes over the “wall.”

What my family saw, of course, was a team whose collective ability to erect a wall resembled that of the Cannabis Builders’ Union (motto: You Can Count on Us to Finish . . . Wait, What Were We Making Again?). Blame Guzan the architect if you must, but it was a collective lapse of concentration that led to as simple and embarrassing a concession on a free kick as I can remember. Yes, the foul Okore was charged with was not really a foul, and, yes, Gabby should have had a penalty on that push later on. And, yes, Villa created far more chances in the second half than their hosts. But what will my guests remember about this game? Gylfi Sigurdsson kicking the ball into the net like a training-ground exercise.

(The Guardian called it a “missile,” but technically, any flying object can be called that. And, if the defending side paints a target on the goal, does the offense really deserve credit for hitting it?)

And this is where my soccer-team-as-the-
stripper-you-married metaphor breaks down.

LuvabullThe thing is, I still saw growth and potential in this game. Just as the man who married the stripper knows she has the potential to be a ballerina, or at least one of the Luvabulls, I saw things giving me hope that all I’ve invested in this relationship will some day be worth it. Villa lost when they deserved at least a point—on yet another maddening lapse of concentration—yet they held the ball better, they passed their way out of trouble (and, admittedly, into it), and they really had a lot of times when they COULD HAVE AND SHOULD HAVE PUT THE BALL IN THE BACK OF THE NET.

(Sidebar: Watching Match of the Day late last night, it occurred to me that, if teams scored every time the commentators announcers intone, “He should have scored,” or “He should have done better” or “He should at least be putting the ball on target,” soccer games would have American football scores. But I digress.)

And this is where my soccer-team-as-the-stripper-you-married metaphor breaks down, because, if you marry a stripper, the presumption is that, if nothing else, you will score.

Ever the gentleman, Simon chatted warmly with Wilhelmina and Oscar, reminding my eleven-year-old nephew (who adores Bayern Munich) that he could choose an English team, too. And that, further, when one Bayern Munich and one Aston Villa met one fateful May night in 1982, it was the English side who carried home the jug-eared trophy. (And promptly lost it, but that’s another story.) I think we’d all like to give the Germans a chance to redeem themselves . . . .

Fourteen-year-old Wilhelmina, a soccer player, runner, and ultimate-frisbee player, showed real promise as a Villan, rising out of her seat when Villa was on the attack, wincing when they were on defense, lending her voice to the general dismay when we missed another chance on goal.

So maybe she sees the potential as well. And if even one or two more family members take a rooting interest in Villa, the outing will have been well worth it—a perfect Christmas present to me, and from me.

Let’s just hope it’s not a gift Wilhelmina and Oscar want to return after the holidays are over.

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