I’m a Chelsea fan. Period. Honestly. Unabashedly. Yes.
That’s me, outside of Stamford Bridge. Yes, I have a jersey. And a scarf. I believe in Jose Mourinho. I know Didier Drogba is the talisman. And I know Frank Lampard should have finished his career a real Blue.
But the story of how I got there is a testament to the impact of Black children seeing brown skin in unfamiliar places.
Back in the 1990s, when Sega was still Genesis and there was but one Playstation, I really enjoyed playing soccer video games. Racing games dominated my allotted time, sure, but soccer games were just so much fun. My earliest memory is FIFA ’96, but what really piqued my interest was FIFA ’98: Road to the World Cup. U.S. international Roy Lassiter, one of the few Black strikers ever on the USMNT, was on the cover; Blur’s “Song 2” was the official theme; and it included the best mode ever introduced in a FIFA game: indoor soccer.
Anyway, the focus of the game was international as it included all 173 teams vying to qualify for the 1998 World Cup. Naturally, since I didn’t know any better in the 8th grade, I found myself trying to play with the best team I could find that happened to have brown people on it. Back then, that was Theirry Henry’s French team. Subconscious choice? Probably not, but it mattered to me to see someone I could recognize and identify with.
Fast forward to 2006. I was a senior in college and the World Cup was coming back around. I’d still been playing FIFA–still identifying with brown characters–and actually had become an Arsenal fan (at least in video game land) in large part because of a diminutive right back named Ashley Cole who happened to wear my favorite number. During the World Cup that year, I was introduced to the Ivory Coast, to Didier Drogba, and to African football. In addition to becoming a bigger soccer fan, I was able to see in a very broad way how differently the game is played across the globe – and that the diversity of the sport is greater than almost any other.[Also, I learned that Drogba played for Chelsea. After seeing his hair – how can you not respect it? – and watching Ashley Cole transfer to Chelsea that same summer, my fandom was sealed.]
In reality though, seeing a Black face playing a sport that I had no intimate knowledge of significantly impacted my fandom in a meaningful way. So much so, in fact, that soccer is now arguably my favorite sport: I watch it constantly (all leagues and competitions); I’ve traveled to Poland to attend a European Championship match (2012, Italy def. Germany and Balotelli was a BEAST) and to Germany for the 2015 Champions League final; I play indoor and outdoor rec soccer year-round; and, still, I play FIFA like it’s my job.
It’s funny how something so small, like finding a face in a crowd that you can identify with, can have such a lasting impact.