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‘Fever Pitch’ Left Me Lukewarm

July 19, 2010

Fever Pitch
Nick Hornby
Riverhead Trade $15.00 Paperback 256 pages

Obsessions you share invite a smile of recognition. Obsessions you don’t share are bafflingly weird. Hornby’s devotion to Arsenal football, lifelong and all-consuming, is very much the latter. Hornby acknowledges that he’s taken his Arsenal obsession to a level beyond reason. He admits he doesn’t even like being an Arsenal fan, stomach knotted with nerves before every game, shivering in the rain to watch the team lose. Conflating the team’s fortunes, superstitiously, with his own. Scheduling his entire life around making sure he can watch games.

This piqued my interest, in the aftermath of the World Cup. I was looking for context and understanding of British football culture.  I might have been too female and too American to read this. Being an American, and a woman who only dabbled in soccer (and got most World Cup news off I am probably not the book’s target audience. I watch football. NFL football. But– if there’s something else fun to do on a Sunday, off I go. (Not during the playoffs, of course.) Can my team win without me? Sometimes, sure! Do I even have a team? Sometimes! Sure!(Go Jets!)

True, lifelong sports fans despair, reading my perspective. As much as I love a good football game, or women’s basketball, I watch more indiscriminately, without living or dying over a particular team, without as keen a sense of history as Hornby has built up. watching Arsenal. There’s a giant differential of commitment between going to games, and watching from the comfort of a bar or the couch. Hornby’s obsession with actual physical presence at the games, starts early in his childhood, as a father-son outing. But, Hornby’s presence at the game becomes integral, urgent, far beyond a pleasant outing, closer to religious mania.

Tracing that mania in vignettes of matches that have intertwined and propelled his own life brings the reader along into the particulars of Hornby’s obsession. He also does a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere of each match, including the famously violent and boisterous soccer hooligans. After reading this, I at least have some sense of visual context for English football, on the good side, loyal and boisterous— on the menacing— unruly, racist, inebriated, even deadly.

In a barrage of names and game history, Hornby makes a good faith attempt to bring a reader along, of both the wider football world, and his own myopic focus. (His inability to truly cheer for a sweet goal, if scored by the opposing team feels strange.) Maybe if I had a better context for English football, I’d be able to follow along better, really understand what the FA Cup meant, or Luton, or Liverpool, or Chelsea.

There are spots where I’m not only baffled by the sport itself, I have trouble reading about the level of obsession Hornby brings to his Arsenal fandom. The confessional nature of his prose, his own slight embarrassment about the level of his psychic involvement bothered me. Especially when contrasted with the aimlessness of his own college and adult life, the focus on football, and acknowledging that it caused him misery— kind of sounded like Holden Caulfield. Only with soccer obsession thrown in.

So it was a relief to read about some of his football experiences outside Arsenal. Watching Cambridge football games, even playing games and kicking around the ball with his friends. Digesting his fandom differently. That, even more than the successes of his wandering career, reassured me that there would be evolution, not just obsession in his memoir.

It whets my appetite for other sports reading. And, as if on cue, this morning I got an email from my fantasy football league.  Yeah. It’s July, it’s humid. And it’s time to think about my kind of football. The kind with helmets!

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