Harkes at The Wall, Part I: A football fan’s journey through fandom

Very often, our initial experiences in sport define our relationship with it. Our in-house writer takes us through his first time at a football stadium.
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli

My father is the best of men.

He worked in the woods of Northern California, felling trees and wrestling them from the hillside to the lumber mill. It was June and his operation was in full swing after the long winter layoff, when snow and mud made the old logging roads that snaked through the Sierra Nevada Mountains inaccessible. Every moment counts in an industry with such a long off-season. Yet he had taken a Wednesday off to drive me and my brother the four hours to San Jose to see our first professional football match. He had little more than a passing interest in the game, but I was obsessed.

Every day, I would run outside with my worn Mitre ball and use the side of my house for target practice. The thump of the ball hitting that wall was the metronome of my childhood, and that rhythm peaked during the summer of 1998. Everybody thinks the best World Cup was the first he or she fully remembers. I had just turned 13, and I lived every moment of France ’98. By the end of the tournament, I had amassed a small library of recorded games on VHS tapes. It was all there: Prosinecki’s silky skills, the Laudrup brothers, Bergkamp’s incredible volley against Argentina, the Nike advert with Brazil playing in an airport, Beckham’s moment of madness, and France’s unlikely cast of heroes dragging themselves to World Cup glory.

In the days leading up to the trip, I channeled my excitement and anticipation into constructing noisemakers out of soda cans and gravel I collected from the creek that ran next our house. Sitting in the front seat next to my dad, I resisted the urge to test them out in the confines of our car. It was a long trip, and I did not want to test his patience so early on.

Arriving at San Jose was like entering a different world. The cattle pasture and oak trees I was used to were replaced by concrete of every variety. The smell of gasoline, strange fried food, and too many people hung in the humid air. To quote the old cowboy song: “Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow; I love creation better as it stood.”

My dad navigated unfamiliar streets in Los Gatos to San Jose State University’s Spartan Stadium. Event staff directed us to a large grass field used as overflow parking. I had never seen so many football fans in one place. I didn’t believe it was possible so many existed in America. And here they all were, playing keep-ups in between cars and wearing San Jose Clash, Mexico, and El Salvador tops. There was a distinct Latin flavor, and norteño music blared from the cars around us.

Growing up in a rural community, I only had a vague idea others like me existed. When the sports editor of the regional paper (this was back when people still read newspapers) wrote an editorial about his hatred of football titled “My World Cup Runneth Over”, enough people abused him into writing a mealy-mouthed apology in his column the following week, proof that outrage culture existed before Twitter.

I’ve heard others describe something approaching awe as they enter stadiums, impressed by the open expanse of green and the towering blocks of supporters. The Clash’s home did not inspire such grand feelings; it was designed for American football and the pitch barely met the dimensions required by FIFA approved competitions. In fact, there was a belief at the time that the official measurements were a fiction. The upper levels remained covered, unused. Our seats were near midfield, a couple rows up from the pink wall that loomed over the sidelines, making throw-ins impossible to see. I was disappointed to be so far from the section behind the goal, the Casbah, where the loudest fans sat. I didn’t realize that my father had laid out a not insignificant amount of money to make sure we had decent seats for our first match.

We had arrived early, and my brother and I rushed to the front to in hopes of collecting autographs from the players warming up on the pitch. I was especially keen because DC United was in town. The club was the first dynasty of Major League Soccer and fielded two of my favorite players: Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes.

I loved watching Etcheverry play the game. He sported a decidedly unfashionable mullet, and it flew out from the back of his head as he twisted and turned with the ball. A mercurial enganche, the United States simply didn’t produce players like him. The country did, however, produce players like Harkes: strong, hard-working, indomitable. It was odd he was even in San Jose though and not with the national team in France for the World Cup. Just before the tournament, he had been unceremoniously stripped of the captaincy and dropped from the squad. Rumours abounded as to why and they seemed to settle on some combination of breaking curfew ahead of a match and a tactical disagreement with the manager, Steve Sampson.

A few players jogged over to sign autographs for the cluster of young fans, and my brother and I joined. To my absolute delight, Harkes was one of them, and I readied myself to make the most of my brush with one of my idols. I had brought a pen and made sure it worked properly when the big moment arrived. I needn’t have bothered; the professionals simply grabbed the first Sharpie they saw and worked their way down the line with it.

I couldn’t believe it when Harkes took my programme and began signing it. Desperate to speak to him, I blurted out that Sampson was an idiot, and I was so sorry to see he wasn’t in team for the World Cup. My hero paused a moment and looked up at me. I couldn’t quite process his facial expression. What I did not know at the time, and what very few people knew, was the true reason he was left home. It had come to the attention of the manager that Harkes had engaged in “an improper relationship” with a friend and teammate’s wife. That look on his face I couldn’t fully understand was shame. “Me too, buddy,” he said and quickly moved on to the next young fan.

We made our way back to our seats and the match began. I made use of my homemade noisemakers as I would at the high school basketball games I’d attended. I looked around though and noticed I seemed to be the only one making a racket. My father looked on serenely, content to let me enjoy the sport I loved in whatever annoying fashion I chose. But I noticed the discomfort of my neighbors, sat down next to my dad, and settled in to watch the match.

It was a bloodbath. The Clash wasn’t a great side in the best of times, and, due to international call-ups, it was shorn of its best player. I didn’t mind though. I had come to see United. I was pleased as the sun went down and the temperature dropped because it gave me a chance to put on my black Adidas jacket that very closely resembled United’s Adidas kit of the same color. It finished 4-0 to the visitors. I celebrated each goal, and I also noticed the increasingly dirty looks of the home fans around me. I didn’t care. My dad was there, and they’d have to get through him first.

 

Fans began squeezing past us on their way to the exits. I couldn’t process why anyone would leave early. I had waited my whole life to see a match live, and I reveled in every moment of it. The goal kicks were thunderous and echoed the drums in the Casbah. Men with trays of overpriced stadium food moved quickly up and down the stairs of each section, barking their wares: “Hot dogs HEEEEEEEEEEEERE! Get your hot dogs HEY-ERE!” We feasted on overpriced frankfurters and even more expensive Sprites. It was a different world, and I didn’t want to ever leave it. But the final whistle blew, and it was time to make our way back to the family car. The reality of the four-hour late night drive home settled over us.

I was always amazed at my father’s ability to stay awake on these drives. It felt superhuman. My younger brother got into the back seat and was asleep before we made it out of San Jose. Not me, though. I was going to show my dad I could be like him. I could stay awake too. We left the city behind us and entered California’s Central Valley. We zoomed through the darkened farmland on either side of the motorway. We stopped for fuel, and my dad got us Skittles from the minimart. They were one of his tricks to ward off sleepiness. If he felt himself getting tired, he said, he would ask me to pass him one Skittle to wake him up. We ate the bag together one at a time. I fell asleep soon after we finished it and woke up as our car pulled into our driveway. We were home.