Brits automatically regard American enthusiasm for 'soccer' as dubious, fake and too johnny-come-lately to be given credence
I'm not a football fan, but I can remember where I was for every World Cup going back to Italia '90 when, for a week, all the kids in my neighbourhood ran around in t-shirts down to their knees bearing a picture of a weeping Paul Gascoigne and the words "There'll Always Be an England".
In 2002 – the year of Beckham's broken metatarsal – I was in Dakar, Senegal, when that small nation qualified for the first time the same week that France, its former colonial ruler, was knocked out of the competition. If the power of the tournament was ever in dispute, driving down the Boulevard de la Gueule Tapée that day – with every car trailing flags and shouts of "France est éliminée!" piercing the air – confirmed that the World Cup is the single event outside of a war that can successfully engage the whole planet.
Because of this history, I have developed an entirely inappropriate World Cup superiority. It's akin to the superiority you see displayed by full-time football fans toward football dilettantes, the "posh" part-time fans who pick a team to support as you might pick a car: based on aesthetic rather than emotional criteria.
Usually it's men – with an occasional woman – who overcompensate for coming late to the party by being really into football in a way that enrages those whose sectarianism goes back to the 1970s. "Suddenly he's decided he's Arsenal till he dies (wish he would) and starts talking about we," said a die-hard Arsenal friend of mine this week about a fake fan we both know. (You are not, I gather, allowed to talk about "we" until you've done years on the terraces, losing in bad weather – not that I know if they even have terraces any more.)
That's a similar condescension to the one with which Brits automatically regard American enthusiasm for the sport: as dubious and fake and too johnny-come-lately to be given much credence. So it was last week that, while nursing this attitude, I found myself in the extremely rare position of being able to wield my fake World Cup fandom over someone who, I judged, had even less authority in this area than I did: an American friend at an American party.
A football fan excited about the competition, he explained to me that it didn't matter to him how well the US team did, because that wasn't the point. The point was "the narrative".
"Wow," I said. "You sound like such a lady." He looked taken aback. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
We lapsed into silence while I pondered my ability to be sexist, jingoistic, self-hating and probably, if you looked at it hard enough, vaguely homophobic, all at the same time. "Sorry, I don't know what came over me."
Football flushes out all sorts of associations and biases that go deep into the European psyche.
British tabloids occasionally get into trouble for dragging the Second World War into any England/Germany match (most notably here), and every British school child who has been on a German exchange trip knows the chant "two World Wars and one World Cup", which was conceived of by England fans on the terraces in the late 1960s and was still going strong on chartered school coaches running between Harwich and Hamburg 30 years later.
Most of the time, however, the nationalism is so camp and good-natured that there's no real hostility to it. During the 2010 World Cup, I was at a house on Long Island watching the England/Germany match when someone put on Noel Coward's Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans ("Let's give them full air parity / And treat the rats with charity / But don't let's be beastly to the Hun") which the Germans present took in good spirit – not least because they'd just won 4-1.
Other times, the nationalism is what turns people off. Although she enjoys the World Cup, another friend – poisoned by all the football hooliganism in England in the 1980s when we were growing up – actively hates the national team and always wills them to lose. During the 1998 tournament, she went around in a Brazil shirt.
"Because I look at England fans and think they're all racist. I always think that if I was there, the next thing they'd do is turn on me."
Anyway, obviously I was wrong to have mocked my American friend at that American party. If all anyone wanted was their national side to win, they wouldn't watch every single match, rooting for the underdog and marvelling at the countries with no resources who rise up against nations 10 times their size, or over-turn colonial history.
"Oddly," confirmed my friend the Arsenal fan when I told him what I'd said, "pretend World Cup football fans don't annoy me. Because it's sort of the spirit of the World Cup that everyone gets involved, even my mum."
The American was right. It's not about the football. It's about the story: of Senegal beating France, or Nigeria beating England. It's about remembering where you were, who you were with and what shape your hair was in four, eight, 12 or – gulp – 24 years ago. To be a lady about it for a moment, it's not about them, it's about us.