Can My 9-Month Old American Daughter Love Everton?

Originally published for Toffeeweb

Alba in her Everton sweater
Alba proudly representing her colors during a stroll at a local park

It wasn’t quite déjà vu or nostalgia, but as we sat there watching as Everton Ladies defeated Liverpool 1–0 in the Merseyside Derby this past November—Alba in her high chair beside the TV tossing Cheerios casually to the floor for the dog, me nearby working from the couch on my laptop—I remembered a similar afternoon more than a decade ago. 

I was in New Jersey at the kitchen table in my parent’s second-floor apartment watching as Everton lost 3–0 to Sporting Lisbon to tumble out of the 2009–10 Europa League. Like a boy newly in love, I was in my first full season as an Everton supporter. The optimism of youth had not yet been trampled by the cruelty of the world. Naively, I wished that God might indulge the virtuosity of my decision to support the Toffees with a championship trophy I could shove in the faces of my friends who had raised disbelieving eyebrows when I swore allegiance to a Premier League side not named Manchester United, Chelsea, or Arsenal.

I am an American-born son of Argentinian immigrants, and the first club to make a claim on my heart was neither English nor American. It was Rosario Central, a mid-table side founded in 1889 by Scottish railway workers, which last won the Argentine first division in 1987—the same year of Everton’s last league championship. My main purpose in watching European soccer leagues was to track Argentinians abroad. But by the late 2000s, when broadcasts of the Premier League and Champions League had expanded to Fox Sports and ESPN, more and more of my friends were claiming a club. They hung their crests on their dorm room walls. “How can you not have an EPL team?” they asked me. “Just pick one.” 

Alba and dad
Before Everton’s season opener against Tottenham Hotspur

 I was raised to be a localista—a supporter of your city or neighborhood team. It felt unnatural, in the way much of American sports fandom outside of college football feels unnatural. How could I support a team I wouldn’t likely see in person for years or even decades? Before I chose, I spent hours online researching, and even more in bed at night wondering which was the best fit, like the sweater you try on once and instinctively know it’ll be the first you turn to the next winter when the temperature drops. A plumber’s son from a gritty working-class city couldn’t support a soulless foreign-owned billionaire club, like the ones my college friends had chosen. I needed one that meant something to its people beyond championships—although I was an Atlantic Ocean away from experiencing any of it myself.

Eventually, Everton burrowed its way to my heart, where the club’s ownership stake only increased this past February with the arrival of my daughter. 

But, will she love the Blues as I do? 

Even before Alba was born, I purchased her more official club gear than I had for myself in a decade. I prayed that she would share my obsession. Her second day on earth, I held her in a hospital room in Knoxville, Tennessee—4,000 miles in a straight line from Liverpool—as we watched Everton’s men collapse to Arsenal. At home a week later, Everton drew 1–1 to Man United. After the match, I posted a picture of her in her blue Everton onesie to Instagram, denouncing the injustice: “What a way to start a Blues fan’s career.”

Everton Ladies—they would be the remedy. 

Though she cannot yet know it, Alba—whose grandfather had played in the youth sides of Newell’s Old Boys, the boyhood club of Lionel Messi and a brief late-career detour of Diego Maradona—is in line to inherit a tradition of infatuation that has afflicted those with Argentinian blood since football was first shipped overseas by the British in the mid-1800s. 

I did not grow up watching women’s soccer, or even watching women play soccer, besides the historic 1999 World Cup victory every American soccer fan can recall with only the mention of an image (Siri, search for “Brandi Chastain sports bra”). Since that victory, two professional women’s leagues have failed; a third, the National Women’s Soccer League, looks more promising, though it consists of 10 teams spread across a nation of 330 million—the closest of which is located in a different state a three-and-a-half hour drive from my city. While I spent five nights a week in college playing in a park behind my parent’s house with other immigrant kids from Mexico, Colombia, Poland, Egypt, Kenya, I cannot recall a single time a woman joined us. 

That changed when I arrived in Knoxville—a more traditionally American and less immigrant-dense city in the American South—where I joined mostly co-ed indoor leagues with women who had played college soccer and didn’t hesitate to slide through you from behind then call you a sissy if you complained. Five years ago, I met my wife on one of these fields. In a league game last year, while pregnant, she turned to a Mexican goalkeeper she swore had called her a puta (Spanish for bitch) throughout the first half. After scoring, she asked him “Who’s the puta now?”

Everton supporters at a bar
A Merseyside Derby spent with visiting Liverpudlians at Mr. Dennehy’s, an Everton supporter’s bar in New York City

I dream of Alba being a woman like this. 

When I learned we were having a girl, I searched online for information on Everton’s women’s team. I familiarized myself with their names and personalities. I had seen Izzy Christiansen against the US women in Nashville in March 2019 when the nations drew 2–2 in the SheBelieves Cup. I was grateful when Valérie Gauvin failed to score for France as the US eliminated the hosts en route to winning last year’s World Cup—which drew a record 1.12 billion viewers worldwide. Soon Alba was sitting beside me on the couch in her Everton jersey with a slobbery soccer ball moving from her hand to her mouth as we streamed Everton Ladies through the FA Player app (a godsend, particularly for the non-English who are trying to follow their teams abroad without navigating a labyrinth of illegal online streaming sites). I purchased my first-ever television—a 55-inch smart TV that towers above the previous 32-incher my parents had donated to me years earlier—and watched on NBC Sports as we lost the Women’s FA Cup Final to Manchester City. “You’ve gotta get used to this feeling,” I told Alba as she mumbled incoherently beside me, spit soaking her jersey like tears. “But we’re Evertonians. We’ll get them next time.”

My father-in-law has said he’s met no other person as single-minded in their dedication to the future they imagine for their child. I take it as a compliment, though beside it in my mind is the constant trickle of comments from others who hear, for example, how this daughter of mine may one day need to move to England if the Women’s Super League, as I predict, truly does overtake whatever professional American women’s league exists at the time, and ask: “What if she doesn’t even like soccer?” “Are you prepared for her to crush your dreams?”

Alba in her Everton oneside
Alba watching Everton vs. Man United in her second week of life.

No, I am not. Even at my most pessimistic, I cannot envision a future where this love for football, for Everton, does not ingrain itself somehow into Alba’s growing brain, eventually making its way to her heart. Once it’s there, how can she turn away? “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell…” wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts two thousand years ago. Football fans know this biblical truth well. Ours is a faith that can never be stripped from us, no matter the despair or the heartbreak.

Maybe football isn’t life, as the character Danny Rojas repeats over and over on Ted Lasso (the AppleTV+ show that arose out of a joke about what would happen if an American football coach were to coach a Premier League team). But isn’t there something about football that is inseparable from life? Being an Everton supporter has taught me that longing for greener pastures might only lead to lament once I’ve arrived. It has taught me to be bold in enjoying the joys of life, for they may be fleeting. It has taught me that long-distance relationships can work, and that hope persists beyond crushing failure. 

I am glad for the way England has invested in women’s soccer. To have something else to hope in. I am excited every week to share videos in the “Everton That” GroupMe I share with six or seven other Knoxville-based Blues, of Alba watching beside me as Lucy Graham scores another goal (“She’s Scottish,” I tell Alba. “You’re named for Scotland.”). Already there are a few extra dollars in my savings account for the trip we’ll make to the United Kingdom in a post-COVID-19 world, enough to stop at both Goodison Park and Walton Hall Park for a weekend of games.

This past week, an American soccer player made history as the first woman to play in the upper echelons of college football. My wife, with Alba on her lap, and I, beside them on the couch, joined millions of American boys and girls, women and men, tuning in to watch Sarah Fuller make a kick. Representation matters. “I saw it, therefore I know it is now possible.” 

Maybe Alba will not be the next Alex Morgan—though I fully expect her to compete with Morgan’s daughter, Charlie, who is just two months younger than her, for our nation’s No. 10 jersey. Maybe she will not care as deeply as I do about whether Everton wins or loses. It’ll probably be healthier for her if she doesn’t. But I tell her every day, whether she hears me or not, that nothing will ever prevent her from becoming everything she desires. There is no dream too big. If that dream happens to coincide with being an Evertonian, an Everton Ladies player, all the better for us. I’ve already started saving for the trip to Liverpool.

Inheriting a Love for the Outdoors

Inheriting a Love for the Outdoors

Originally published for Latino Outdoors

I was 7 years old the first time I watched my dad clean a catfish. We were in the kitchen of the old ranch house in the Pocono Mountains where we’d go every summer to escape the city. He cut off its head. Even separated from its body, the fish’s lips smacked together like it was still breathing. I was terrified. And strangely fascinated. The same feeling I had had a few years earlier at my grandparent’s house on the dirt road side of Capitan Bermudez in Argentina, where my grandfather slaughtered a chicken and let it run headless through the yard.

For men like them, when it came to blood and guts, there was never any blushing or hesitation. As for me, I could not have turned out more different.

Continue reading “Inheriting a Love for the Outdoors”

Discovering Peace on the River

Discovering Peace on the River

Originally published for Tenkara Angler

My dad told the story again in late June in Jonathan’s workshop, with saltwater, spin, and fly rods hanging on hooks above his head and Jonathan, my fly fishing sensei, sitting with a fat cigar in mouth on a stool beside his tying table, listening.

“I would set Brian up, then I would tell him: don’t reel it in until you feel a bite,” Dad recounted. In this story, he turns to my brother, Victor, and sets his bobber and hooks on a small minnow we had caught in a stream feeding the small lake in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Before Victor can cast I’m already reeling in my line. “Did you feel a bite?” Yeah, yeah, I say. On the other end the dying minnow, whole, flaps in the water.

Continue reading “Discovering Peace on the River”

My Hero, Batistuta

Batistuta

I was in eighth grade at PS 14. In Mrs. Squittieri’s history class we had been reading excerpts from The Odyssey and talking about heroes. I remember where I sat and the cover of the book of Greek mythologies we read from, which would become one of my childhood favorites. One day, in the way of all great teachers, she had connected the heroes of literature to the real-life heroes in our 13-year-old lives. I knew exactly who she was talking about.

Continue reading “My Hero, Batistuta”

My Favorite Longform Journalism of 2018

At least since 2016, journalism has been in the spotlight. Despite what you may have heard, there are hardworking reporters at newspapers, magazines, and web outlets across the country who dig into issues that matter to us: crime, politics, sports, technology, arts and culture, healthcare, the outdoors. These are trained reporters—not talking heads or bloggers—who use editorial insight, interviews, weeks and months of in-depth research including scouring material and historical sources, and accessible writing styles to shed light on what we cannot fully understand without their work.

I read a lot of longform journalism: the most in-depth form of journalism, which means articles usually read more like novellas. These are some of my favorite stories from 2018, across genres. I highly recommend you read them.

If you enjoy these stories, subscribe to these serious outlets (and simultaneously quit your Facebook scroll and turn off your TV news networks). And use sources like Longform and Longreads to find curated lists of the best reporting happening out there in the world right now.

Continue reading “My Favorite Longform Journalism of 2018”

The Most Important Things

“He lay there holding her. It had been hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon in February, and as the hours passed so did the sunlight that peaked through the cracks of the blinds in their bedroom. He did not move from his spot beside her even as darkness filled the house. The minutes passed, evening came, and he did not turn on the light. He only watched her chest rise as it filled with air and she exhaled. And he held her tightly.”

Continue reading “The Most Important Things”

The Phantom Punch

The Phantom Punch

The punch came from an angle he had never expected. The boxer didn’t actually see it as it landed just above his left cheek. Immediately the thin bone inside the thin layer of his flesh, bruised and cut from a hundred other punches, shattered.

The punch sent off a flash in the boxer’s mind. His mind went blank for a moment, like a big cinema screen before the start of a movie. “This must be what being ‘out on your feet’ feels like,” he thought. But then, vividly, a memory from his past began to play.

The boxer wasn’t a boxer then. He was 17 years old, and he stood in the backyard with her. Golden waves of hair gently splashed the dress straps clinging loosely to the girl’s shoulders. He caught her eyes. They were big, brown eyes and they were fixed on his, too. She smiled a bright, golden smile. The sun was high above the girl and the leafy branches on the tree behind her swayed. She was in the midst of whispering something to him.

Flash.

The boxer was back in the ring, bent over against the ropes, and deafened by the sound of the nearby spectators who cheered and shouted for the knockout. He looked up and caught the eyes of the man in front of him. Sweat poured from his own bruised face as the lights above enveloped him, blacking out everything behind him. Another punch was inches from colliding with the boxer’s chin. He was there, present in mind and body, and at the same time he wasn’t. Because it didn’t make sense. “Why her? Why now?”

The punch landed, the boxer’s knees buckled, and he let the force of his own weight take him down to the canvas. He rolled over onto his back and looked up at the lights above, blinking. He hoped for another flash.

“Goddammit. Come back. Please come back,” he thought.

Part of the motivation behind my blogging again is to share fragments of the short stories I’ve been working on. I don’t get the chance to write fiction as often as I once did. But, there’s something beautiful about it to me. Hemingway was quoted, saying, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Except the blood, once it coagulates, can’t always be traced back exactly to you. There’s fragments there; pieces of you that you’ve poured out into your fiction. But, you borrow, create, and imagine, too.

In boxing, there was famous fight—the hugely anticipated rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, who Ali had beaten to become the World Heavyweight Champion at the age of 22. Many people were still shocked from Ali’s first win and expected the heavily-muscled, knockout artist that was Liston to pummel the brash Kentuckian. But, that isn’t what happened. Instead, Ali scored a first-round knockout from a punch still debated more than 50 years later. Because much of the audience and television viewership didn’t see it land, it was called “the phantom punch.” After it knocked Liston on his butt, the bigger man rolled around for a few moments and didn’t get up. When the referee called off the fight the crowd immediately booed and yelled “Fix!”

Liston was known for his prior mob connections so naturally many commentators argued he took the fall on purpose to repay debts by losing at almost impossible odds. Others, like former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and Hall of Fame commentator Larry Merchant, reviewed the video of the fight and said the punch, albeit impossible to see for most of the audience, connected perfectly. I’ve watched the video in slow motion and it does look like the punch snapped into Liston’s chin and reverberated through the back of his neck—the typical makings of a knockout blow.

Life has a tendency of smacking a lot of us on the chin unexpectedly. There’s punches you see coming. And then there’s the ones that catch you surprise. The people around you—friends, family, colleagues, teammates, mortal enemies—might say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad. Pick yourself up, pal,” or “Don’t make a big deal out of it.”  They don’t always say it, but there’s always the ones who just can’t help themselves.

But, human pain doesn’t work that way. Healing doesn’t work that way. Imagine what was going on in Liston’s mind on that canvas. Imagine the days after when all the newspapers and television channels and people on the street were in shock and hurled criticism and abuse his way. Imagine what he thought the ones he loved might think–his children, his wife, his mother.

Our lives are made up of flashes and moments. They coalesce in the end to create the story of our years on this earth. Some of those flashes are heart-shattering. Others joyful. They all have their significance in the end. I want to say we should watch out better for those phantom punches. But, I don’t know we can. Maybe we shouldn’t. I just know that eventually we do get back up again. And we’re different. Different because of how we handled it all.

The Inconspicuous Return

“I’m starting to get the feeling, more and more, to come back…It’s like a knife that I have to keep sharp just in case I ever decide to jump back in the mix…”

Georges St-Pierre

Most comebacks in professional sports are met with terrific fervor. In boxing, the return of Muhammad Ali and later Mike Tyson attracted global attention. When Fedor Emelianenko — The Last Emperor, as he is known in the world of mixed martial arts — declared his comeback for New Years Eve 2015 after a three-year retirement, there was a frenzy over who he would face and if the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) might sign him. For the past two years, there have been murmurs that another sensation, former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, might finally return to order to make a second run inside the Octagon and regain his belt.

Despite the passion and excitement generated on most of these occasions, the comebacks have been either short-lived or disappointing. Ali was badly beaten by former training partner Larry Holmes and then lost again to Trevor Berbick before finally hanging up the gloves a few months before his 40th birthday. Tyson was knocked out in his final two fights, looking like a shell of himself and admitting after his loss to Kevin McBride that he didn’t have the guts to stay in boxing anymore. Fedor surprised everyone in his choice to fight an MMA nobody in former professional kickboxer Singh Jaideep and beat him up in an expectedly lopsided win. In his second fight since his un-retirement, he was almost knocked out in the first round by faded Brazilian Fabio Maldonado and won a contested majority decision for a Russian promotion for which Fedor himself picked the judges. Fight fans (and ladies) everywhere are still awaiting the comeback of St-Pierre, with his camp and rivals in search of a big paycheck insinuating he might return for Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz, or Michael Bisping.

Some returns are less heralded and go almost unnoticed by the rest of the world. After being knocked out for a second time by Chuck Liddell in 2006, Randy Couture retired only to return a year later and challenge Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title. Couture was 46 years old, six inches shorter and more than 40 pounds lighter than Sylvia. But, he dominated the giant man across five rounds to become the oldest UFC champion in history.

With the creation of Dope on the Ropes, I’ve made my fourth or fifth semi-serious run at blogging. The others were as unheralded as it gets. The most popular post on my last blog had 300 reads if I was lucky. But, like a hopeless fighter throwing back wild, blind hooks from the ropes, I’m a relentless one. Join me for the ride. Here goes!

  • Brian Gabriel